In June your mother asks for the ornaments. Your brother is at work and your fat sister is useless, so you bring the boxes down from the attic. There are more than a hundred of them. Colorful balls, Hallmark Snoopys, and gluey nursery school popsicle trees hang together with invisible threads. Sweating profusely, you drag down the bin of stockings and wintry knickknacks. If only we could find a tree your mother says softly.
Late that night you go to get the book you left in the backyard and see your brother and his girlfriend, Kim, sixty-nining in the back of his car. You watch for too long, your heart racing, your legs shivering despite the heat. When you finally go inside, you slice your foot on a sharp metal angel on the floor.
The book you went to get is called The Hotel New Hampshire. Kim gave it to you as an 8th grade graduation present. She and Paul went to the ceremony. Your mother couldn’t. Your father didn’t. He worked all the time before your mother got sick and works even more now. Your sister wanted to go but you said you only had two tickets. Paul and Kim got very dressed up and when your name was called, they cheered louder than anyone else. Paul did his long loud whistle. Afterwards, at DQ, Kim gave you the book. You might be a little young, she said. But you can handle it. You’re cool.
You like Kim. You don’t like your sister, Molly-Jean, who is one year older but plays with dolls, sleeps with stuffed animals and, even though it’s not like it was, she sometimes wets the bed. Your sister has no friends but thinks everyone is which might be the worst thing of all.
When school starts, you’ll be a freshman. Your sister will be a sophomore although she spends her days in basement classrooms. Your brother and Kim won’t be there because they’re going to college.
Your mother used to have just a day nurse but now one comes at night too.
This should be the worst summer of your life except that Danny Guerra is working at the town pool. You have loved Danny since 5th grade. He has black hair that falls in his eyes, caterpillar eyebrows, and acne on his chin. He wears t-shirts that say Metallica, Rush, Ludwig. Last year in French Danny Guerra would tap two pencils, one in each hand on his desk, until Madame Jacobi yelled arrête ça, Daniel! Danny is the drummer in a band called Smelling Salts!
Danny is also too young to lifeguard, so he sits in the office at the pool entrance and checks people in. Sometimes he gives people the mildewy lost and found bin so they can look for their wallets, their keys.
When you can’t stop thinking about your mom or Paul leaving or being in the house with just your father and sister, you imagine sixty-nining Danny Guerra. You creep your fingers to touch the part you think is the part you want to touch.
Your mother’s new night nurse comes at eight and leaves at seven.
You might also work at the pool. Your neighbor, Melissa, who is in college, is head lifeguard this summer. Melissa appeared in your yard after graduation but long before the sixty-nining. She said she didn’t know if you had summer plans, but they could use extra help with the camps. There are several day camps at the pool in the mornings. Plus, a group of Sped kids who are well, you know. Melissa said you could tell the campers and Speds to stop running. And if someone fell, you could get the lifeguard the first aid kit from the office. She didn’t mention money, but you said you’d think about it.
On the first Monday of summer vacation, you walk to the pool. At home, your sister is helping your mother organize the ornaments. The day nurse is cutting coupons. The pool is empty when you get there. Melissa tells you to wait. Later, when it’s teeming with children, she hands you a whistle. She says you really shouldn’t blow it, that you’re not allowed in the lifeguard chairs.
Your brother is teaching tennis at the fancy country club again this summer. The country club is far but pays a lot plus gas because Paul is a regional tennis star. He’s also very good looking. When you were six, you overheard your neighbors talking about your brother. You were pressed up against the house playing hide and seek. One neighbor looked at your brother who was counting in the driveway and said, well clearly, he’s the beauty and the brains in that family. You felt a bolt when you heard this, but it also cemented your suspicions. But Paul is also your favorite. In the fall, when your mother is probably dead, your brother will be at Princeton playing tennis.
You think the neighbor who said that about your brother, Melissa’s mom, told Melissa to find you something to do. She must feel sorry for you. But you spoke to no one that first day. You didn’t retrieve a single Band-Aid. You just stood there. You thought you’d never go back but on your way out, Danny Guerra was sitting in the office, taping pens on a clipboard. He looked up and said, oh hey you working here too? So now you go every day.
When you get home you look for The Hotel New Hampshire but can’t find it.
The living room has been taken over by santas, snowmen, and reindeer. Your mom says your name. Spit clots the sides of her lips. When you sit, she touches your cheek. Her finger is dry and hard. She asks if you have any questions, wonders if there’s anything she can tell you. You swallow. The only question you have is about that feeling you get, the feeling you can’t stop wanting to get. Is that an orgasm? Is that what it is? This is the only question you can think of, but it doesn’t seem right to ask.
You have trouble sleeping. Your room is hot, your lips are chapped. You keep picking the scab on your foot.
Your favorite kid at the pool is a pear-shaped, nine or ten-year-old Sped named Jack who always cannon balls into the pool. He never complains. He walks up to you and smiles. Every day he asks your name.
Kim, who has been your brother’s girlfriend for more than two years, isn’t going to Princeton. She says Princeton is too preppy. She’s going to a college in Vermont which your brother says is for hippies. They call each other preppy and hippie and laugh a lot. They’re always kissing.
Kim’s job is babysitting a three-year-old girl named Cricket and her baby brother Jason. Cricket is extremely shy. Kim said on her first day, she put Jason in his crib for his nap. Cricket was in her room coloring. Kim used the bathroom. When she came out, the house was quiet, peaceful. She was about to make a sandwich but for some reason, she didn’t have a bad feeling or anything, she went into Jason’s room and discovered a garage bag covering him.
Now Kim watches Cricket like a hawk. When she uses the bathroom, she takes Jason with her.
When you can’t sleep but don’t want to think about Danny Guerra you imagine a garbage bag on a baby.
The new night nurse says she ordered a bed for your mother who has stopped going upstairs. The new nurse says the new bed will be better than the couch. You nod but don’t know why she’s telling this to you.
Molly-Jean keeps baking Christmas cookies. Every day when you get home the house is a thousand degrees and smells like cinnamon.
Even before your mom got sick, you never talked to your father. His name is Paul like your brother, but everyone calls him David. You don’t think anyone has ever told you what he does for a living.
The scab on your foot starts to smell.
Now that your mother has stopped going upstairs, you hear Paul and Kim at two or three in the morning. You think they wake up when they think everyone else is sleeping.
The campers and Speds leave by noon, so the pool can open for the public. You have nothing to do then, but sometimes you stay. Sometimes you buy chips from the vending machine and read The Hotel New Hampshire. Sometimes you act like you’re leaving and then linger to see what Danny is doing.
Your lips start bleeding. You can’t find Vaseline, so you use the Crisco your sister has for her cookies.
When Kim and Paul have sex, they sound like the feral cats your sister feeds.
The new night nurse shows you the levers and a rubber sheet on the new bed. Molly-Jean laughs as she raises it up and down. Molly-Jean likes the night nurse. She follows her around. She likes all of your mother’s nurses but especially this one.
Kim says she’s going to bring the kids she babysits to the pool. They’ll come when the baby wakes from his nap. All morning you buzz. You want to ask Danny to let Kim and the kids in. They don’t need to get in for free, but you want to tell him. When he sees you, he slides his headphones down onto his neck. You try not to take this as a sign, but you blurt out everything about Kim and Cricket and Jason and the garbage bag. It’s the most you’ve ever said. Danny puts his headphones back on and says, yeah no problem. I’ll let ‘em in. He smiles which gives you a propulsive tingling.
You hold the baby, so Kim can swim with Cricket. Cricket doesn’t look at you but Jason grins drooly bubbles when Kim thrusts him in your arms. You walk him out to the area between the dank bathrooms and locker rooms. You hold him up to the vending machine like he’s trying to decide between Fruit Pies and Doritos. You find this funny since he has no teeth. Danny comes up behind you. Is this the famous garbage bag baby? Your heart races as you nod. I might write a song call murder sister. He drums his fingers on vending machine glass. Jason is transfixed.
You’re sunburnt and dehydrated when you get home. Your clothes are cemented onto your body. Your brother is at the table making paper snowflakes with your sister. We’re giving mommy a white Christmas, Molly-Jean sounds happy. Paul hands you scissors. You can’t make snowflakes. All you get are holes. Your arms hurt from carrying the baby. Paul’s are works of art. Molly-Jean’s are adequate. You look at the mess of crumpled paper in your hand and say you’ll try later.
In the shower you let cold water seep from your face down your belly and in between your legs. You imagine Danny’s fingers tapping inside you. When you go back downstairs dozens of snowflakes hang from the ceiling above your mother’s couch. Your mother points and smiles. Not me you think. Yes, you say.
Your sister knocks on your door. It’s late, nearly midnight. You think you’ve been caught but she hands you The Hotel New Hampshire. It was in the freezer, she says. She laughs like it’s all very funny.
Jack says he’s going to do fifty cannonballs. You should watch me. I’m really good.
Okay, you say. But you forget and the next thing you know he’s standing back in front of you dripping wet, proud.
The cut on your foot turns green. Molly-Jean has taken to wearing your mother’s red wool hat while she bakes.
On July 4th, Kim and your brother ask if you want to watch fireworks at the country club where Paul teaches tennis.
Really? You want me to come?
Yes, dummy, Paul says. Don’t be stupid.
You haven’t been in your brother’s car since the night you saw him and Kim sixty-nining. The ride is long.
Tan women in white pants fall over themselves when they see Paul. Kim unfolds a blanket on the top of the golf course. You wonder how many times she and Paul have had sex on it but sit because you don’t want to be rude. When Paul goes to the snack bar, Kim braids your hair. When Paul gets back, the ice cream is melted. You take one bite and instantly the remaining crunchy pink bits slide onto your lap. This is when Danny Guerra appears.
Danny wants to know what you’re doing. You point to your brother who has Kim’s head in his lap. Danny nods. He’s wearing his Metallica shirt. He says his aunt and uncle are members. He stands there tapping his fingers into the air. He stands there and stands there and stands there and stands there and stands there.
Danny Guerra wants to stay.
When it’s dark, Kim lights a joint. You have only smoked one other time and it didn’t work because it was probably oregano. This time it makes the sky catch fire. Red white blue. Happy Birthday, America.
Danny Guerra is so close you smell his lemon peppery waft. You don’t know where to put your hands. Kim tells you to lie down. She and Paul are on their backs. It’s awesome this way, Paul says. Danny lays down. You spend a long time thinking about how to do this. When you finally do, Danny puts his headphones on you and your ears pound. Rush, he says.
You feel Danny tap his long fingers into your palm in time to the explosions. Danny puts his mouth on you.
Red green red. The sky is Christmas.
Your lips are chapped. No one has ever been this thirsty. Your mouth evaporates Danny. Danny is going to crumple like paper and become nothing but dust and ash and bone.
One hundred thousand years go by.
The golf course lights come on. Danny and Kim and Paul stand up.
Later, Danny says.
Later, your brother says.
We should get a tree, you say.
Paul looks at you.
You point to the swath of pine trees on the perimeter of the country club. We should get a Christmas tree for mom.
You’re still very stoned when you get to the house. Paul says he’s dropping Kim off, he’ll be back soon. The night nurse is asleep on the hospital bed. Your mother is on the couch. She might be dead but probably not. The kitchen smells like chocolate. You can’t find the Crisco. You realize you’re starving. You devour iced Santas, and snowmen, and stars. It’s two o’clock in the morning but Paul isn’t home. You don’t blame him. You feel sick. You ate so many cookies. Fucking Christmas in July.
Hey. Danny says when you see him.
He puts on his headphones. You stand there for too long before you leave.
I’m going to do ninety-nine cannonballs today, Jack informs you.
Okay. I’ll be there soon.
You see Danny in the reflection of the vending machine so you spend a long time trying to decide what to get even though you only ever get Fritos.
The new night nurse quits.
Danny hands you The Hotel New Hampshire. You left this.
Wanna hang out?
He points to the office.
Is that allowed?
The office smells like sunscreen and Twizzlers. Danny takes your hand. He puts his headphones on your head. The noise jolts you but you don’t lower the volume.
Van Halen. Everyone talks about Eddie but Alex is a sick drummer.
Danny drums your palm and sticks his tongue down your throat as you listen.
You go home and yell at Molly-Jean. There are too many cookies. And stop wearing that hat. It’s a hundred degrees out. Your mother retches violently in the next room. Molly-Jean says nothing, puts a pile of cookies on a plate, and goes to your mother.
A woman you assume is the newer night nurse hands you The Hotel New Hampshire. She says it was on the washing machine. Read Garp, she says. That’s my favorite.
Danny says Smelling Salts! has a gig. It’s kind of a battle of the bands. They should go on around ten. Cool, you say.
Kim says she’ll go to Smelling Salts! with you. Paul would but a couple from the country club gave him free tickets to an important tennis match.
In the car Kim plays REO Speedwagon and Tears for Fears. Before you get out, she does your makeup. You feel terrible about your dead lip skin on her lipstick.
The bands are playing in a humid, crumbling barn which smells like cigarettes and mud. It’s so loud the wound on your foot beats like a drum. You push up to the stage but Smelling Salts! isn’t playing. You look for Danny.
A man, he looks old enough to be your dad, hands you a cup. He says something but you can’t hear. You see someone who looks like Danny, but when you finally get close it’s not Danny at all. Not even close.
You have no idea where Kim is. You drink everything in your cup.
Danny walks onto the stage. He’s wearing a shirt you’ve never seen, but the drums block you from reading it. The rest of the band is two boys and a short girl who sings with her eyes closed. There is a zap of feedback and everyone groans. You want Danny to know you’re here. You shove forward.
Kim is talking to a guy in a tie-dye shirt. You watch her laugh, touch his arm. When she sees you, you look away.
Danny counts the band off and the singer screams.
You stand there. You think about how much of the summer has been you standing around. You try to remember where you last read The Hotel New Hampshire. You want to know what happens to the bear and Franny and Frank and Lilly and Egg. Someone behind you hollers Smelling Salts sucks!
You feel like you might pass out but no one lets you move. You knock into a girl with two long braids. Watch out baby, she says. It takes forever but you finally free yourself.
You take deep gulping breaths outside. You see one of the lifeguards from the pool throw up onto a haystack. You walk away from the old man and right into Danny.
You came, he says. He sounds happy and surprised. Did you like it?
Danny Guerra kisses you right in front of everyone. It’s the best night of your life.
Kim appears. You ready? Her eyeliner is smudged, and she smells like your brother’s room. In the car, neither of you speaks.
Your father is at the door when you get home. He’s wearing boxer shorts, which is very weird. Is mom dead, you ask because you can’t think of any other reason why your father would be here like this.
Your mother isn’t dead. There’s been an incident. Apparently, your sister locked herself in the bathroom. The newer night nurse, afraid your sister might have taken some of your mom’s medications, woke your father.
The bathroom door handle won’t budge. Molly-Jean. Come out of the bathroom.
If you come out of the bathroom you can sleep in my room. Like we used to.
Do you want me to sleep in your room?
You can’t explain why but you feel hurt. Do you have any of Mommy’s medicine?
No. It’s hers. Molly-Jean sound indignant.
Mommy is going to die soon, Molly-Jean says. The nurse told me that.
Her name is Marilyn Chestnut.
The new night nurse. She’s not nice.
Mommy and Paul are nice. But Paul is leaving too.
Kim is nice. If she marries Paul we’ll be sisters.
You picture Kim’s tongue down the tye-dye guy’s throat and shut your eyes.
She would be a nice sister, Molly-Jean says.
You slide down the door. You’re so tired. No one says anything. Your legs fall asleep. You wonder what it would feel like to sixty-nine Danny. You wonder if something like that just happens or it’s discussed beforehand.
Hours later, Molly-Jean opens the door. She hands you The Hotel New Hampshire. This was in the bathtub, she says.
You wait for the newer night nurse to quit but she doesn’t.
Danny puts your hand between his legs. You’re sitting next to him at the table. He has headphones on and is writing lyrics.
Jack says you missed all of my cannonballs.
Tomorrow, you tell him.
It’s nice that you’re nice to him, Danny says.
A week goes by and you realize that you haven’t seen Kim. You ask Paul where she is. He shrugs. His eyes are red and you don’t know if he’s stoned or crying.
Danny puts his hand between your legs.
Jack says, I did one thousand cannonballs and you missed them.
No I didn’t, you lie. I saw you do nine-hundred and ninety-nine of them. From right here.
The newer night nurse, Marilyn Chestnut, removes all of the ornaments from the windowsills and piano. She starts folding the stockings. You and your sister yell at her to stop.
It’s August, she says.
So, your sister says. Who cares? Leave everything where it is.
Yeah, you say. It’s not your job.
Marilyn Chestnut shakes her head. And then Paul and Kim come in. They’re laughing. Happy! And they have a tree! A real, six-foot tree. The room swells with pine.
You don’t believe it. How did you get that?
Cut it, Paul says. With a bow saw.
And used my step-dad’s truck, Kim says. She looks at you. You look back at her.
Molly-Jean gets the tree stand. You fill it with water. Kim and Paul hang the ornaments. The tree looks burdened. Your mother would never have put so many ornaments on a tree, but nobody says anything. Molly-Jean plays “Silent Night.” You’ve forgotten that your sister plays piano. When was the last time she had a lesson? You think you should tell your dad to call her teacher and sign her back up. He owes you for the other night, doesn’t he?
The next day you take Molly-Jean to the pool. You introduce her to Danny. You walk her out to the pool deck. You give her the whistle Melissa gave you. You tell her it’s her job now. You look for Jack but can’t find him.
Your mother wakes up. She sits up and looks around. Her eyes light up when she sees the tree. Christmas?
Not yet, you say.
Molly-Jean is not afraid. She blows the whistle all the time. Kids stop running as soon as they see her. You hear campers talk about how scary she is. I heard she killed someone, one says. The other one nods. They walk slowly around your sister.
Marilyn Chestnut says this can happen, but don’t expect anything permanent.
You sit with Danny. Sometimes you check people in. Sometimes you hand over the lost and found bin. Sometimes you bring your Walkman. Danny says Reo Speedwagon sucks Tears for Fears is ok but Motley Crue and Metallica are superior.
Someone puts lights on the tree. The tree needs so much water. It’s thirsty all the time.
Marilyn Chestnut says prepare.
You scratch the scab on your foot till it stops being itchy.
Sometimes you and Danny go into the back of the office which is sweltering and windowless. Sometimes he pushes his hand through the bottom of your cut-offs and into your underwear. Sometimes you close your eyes. Sometimes you keep them open and look at the shelf of chemicals.
Molly-Jean says she’s too busy to go to the pool. You’ll have to do your job today so they can make Christmas dinner.
Paul and Kim say yes. They’ve called in sick.
We’re feasting, Molly-Jean says. Like Jesus.
On your walk you remember that Molly-Jean still has your whistle. You walk past Danny. You walk onto the pool deck. It’s quiet. No one is in the water.
What’s going on, you ask Michelle.
Jack is dead.
Michelle stares at you. You look at your feet.
On your way out you tell Danny Jack died. Oh, he says. Ok.
When you get home the house smells like meat and pine and sugar and sunscreen. The table is set with china. Paul carries the recliner into the dining room. Then he carries your mother. She is so tiny now Molly-Jean gets the couch cushions to prop her up. Paul pours wine. You think about how much time your mom spent dieting and what she would’ve given to be this thin. You remember Jack and start crying. It’s not going to work with Danny. Drummers are a lot.
Molly-Jean kicks you under the table. You wipe your tears. You eat turkey that might not be completely cooked and drink your wine.
No one knows how Jack died. Someone says heart surgery. He’d had similar operations before but this time something went wrong. Someone else says no, Jack cannonballed into a lake and the water was shallow.
After dinner, Paul carries your mother back into the living room. Molly-Jean plays piano and everyone sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The front door opens. Marilyn Chestnut looks around and shakes her head. There are presents. Kim gives everyone a different flavor of fruity lip gloss. You get cherry. Molly-Jean gives everyone, including Marilyn Chestnut, friendship bracelets. Paul gives Kim a keychain with her name on it. Molly-Jean and your mom get stuffed Princeton tigers. Molly-Jean nestles the tiger under your mother’s non-existent armpit. Paul hands you a large box. It’s the biggest box under the tree and everyone is excited for you to open it. In the box is The Hotel New Hampshire. Everyone thinks it’s funny.
You stop going to the pool. You read the paper. You read about Ronald Reagan and Ivan Lendl and a teenage girl who died near Paul’s country club and Sandinista soldiers and a dog that walked 900 miles to find its owners in Colorado, but you don’t find anything about Jack.
After that you put everything away. You tell Molly-Jean she can help if she wants but she doesn’t have to. You pack every ornament. You take off the lights and put away the stockings. You apologize to your mom as you take down the snowflakes. You find the friendship bracelet Molly-Jean made her on the floor and tie it back on her wrist. You put the stuffed tiger next to the pillow. You drag the tree out the door. Dead pine needles are everywhere. You leave the tree on curb and walk to the drugstore where you fill a basket with Chapstick, peroxide, cotton socks with pom-poms on the heel, and Band-Aids. You charge everything to your parents’ account. Outside, you sit on the curb and pour the peroxide on your foot. It hurts but not like you thought it would. You dry it on the bottom of your t-shirt and put on band-aids criss cross applesauce. You put on the socks and shoes. You think you’ll walk home because you still need to empty the tree stand and vacuum all the pine needles, but you walk to the pool. When you see Danny you tell him it’s over, you’re done. Okay, he says. He puts his headphones back on. You walk onto the pool deck. I’d quit, you tell Michelle. But this wasn’t really a job. She nods. You turn to leave but change your mind at the last minute.