The Deep End
When she goes out into the kitchen, Rachel’s parents are at the round table where the family eats their meals. Rachel’s mother wears a white bathrobe with roses on it, and her father wears one made of blue terrycloth. They have glasses of orange juice in their hands. Rachel wants some juice too, so she climbs up onto the tall-backed chair that sits empty between her parents and reaches for her father’s glass.
“We’re going to see grandpa this weekend!” her mother says to her.
“Today?” Rachel asks.
Her parents nod. Her mother gets up and slices a banana onto a plate and puts it in front of Rachel. She eats the slices slowly, but they are a little green and stringy and don’t taste as good as the slices from the brown bananas.
Rachel sits on her bed watching Blue’s Clues while her mother rolls up bathing suits and t-shirts and packs them into a small, cow-print suitcase.
“Can I have some M&Ms?” Rachel asks.
“No, Rachel. It’s only nine in the morning.”
Rachel has no idea what that means. She gets off her bed and walks into the living room, where her father is sitting on the couch wearing a t-shirt with a bulldog on it. There is a radio on the table in front of him, and two arguing men’s voices stream out from it.
“Can I have some M&Ms?” she asks her father.
“Don’t tell your mother.” He gets up and goes into a drawer in the kitchen that Rachel can’t reach, and takes out the brown packet of M&Ms and pushes a green one and a blue one into her hand.
In the lobby, the doorman helps her father load their bags into a car. He makes a snipping motion with his fingers. “Better watch out somebody doesn’t chop off that long, pretty hair!” he says to Rachel. Rachel’s parents laugh and she holds onto her mother’s leg.
The car pulls into the stream of taxis outside their building and Rachel’s face presses against the taut seatbelt holding her into her car seat. Her father puts the same radio station he’d been listening to in the apartment on the car radio. On the car ride she wakes up only once, to spit up the acid orange juice onto her shirt. They pull over and her mother lifts her out of the car and they walk down into a hot, grassy ditch on the side of the road. Her mother’s hands, the veins full and blue and pushing through the skin, press hard against Rachel’s chest and stomach as she wipes the vomit off Rachel’s shirt with napkins from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Finally, they are in Rye. Her grandfather’s house is yellow and surrounded by big trees in the front. She hugs her grandfather’s leg, his back won’t let him bend down for the rest of him to meet her. She leaves him behind talking to her parents and pulls open the creaky-hinged aluminum storm door. She jumps and reaches for the copper mezuzah nailed in the doorframe, slapping the wall a foot below where it hangs, then lets herself into the house she knows so well.
The kitchen has an orange floor and a long wooden table with a lot of seats. Her grandfather has left a bowl of cornflakes with bananas in them half eaten at its head, next to a folded newspaper. Rachel climbs into the chair closest to his. Her grandfather and her parents come into the house. Her mother calls her grandfather dad. Mom’s dad sits back in his chair and fishes out a spoonful of his cereal and peals the newspaper open. “I’m doing the crossword,” he tells Rachel.
“Can we go swimming?” Rachel asks.
“Let’s have a snack first,” Rachel’s mom says.
“Can I have a cheese sandwich?”
“Sure,” Rachel’s mom says.
Rachel’s father goes into the backyard. Her mother goes into the fridge and the cabinets and puts a slice of cheese and a pad of butter between two pieces of rye bread, and puts the sandwich on a paper plate and microwaves it for one minute.
In the backyard, everything is green except for the swimming pool, which is bright blue and shaped like a bean. Rachel has an inflated water-wing on each arm. The plastic is sticky and rubs her skin raw. Her mother, wearing a bright red bikini and with a baseball-capped head that never goes underwater, leads her down the steps and holds Rachel up in the shallow end. When Rachel puts her hands on the edge of the pool, her grandfather’s white calves and argyle socks and loafers are at eye level and his face is obscured behind a newspaper.
More adults arrive, with tanned skin and gelled hair and baseball caps and makeup. Rachel knows them, they are named Lyle, Connie, Marty, and Michelle and they are friends of Rachel’s parents. None of them have their own kids, though. Some of them stick their feet in the water and say Hi, sweetheart to Rachel in slow, long voices. They spread out on the lawn chairs and Rachel’s mom wants to get out of the pool to join them.
“Can I please stay in, if I just stay on the steps?” Rachel asks.
“Sure,” her mom says.
The adults start talking about the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. They don’t even pay attention to her at all, not even Marty who usually colors and plays Candy Land when he comes over for dinner.
Rachel blows bubbles and a little water goes up her nose. She climbs out of the pool. The adults are drinking cans of beer and playing a board game with dice and no pictures on the board. Rachel pulls the water wings off her arms and drops them on the ground. The edges of her grandfather’s property are full of big shrubs and trees with flat, waxy leaves, and yellow flowers, and soft lamb’s ear plants with silvery fur, and apple trees, and other vines and things—all of them dark and green. She walks across the hot lawn and her mom yells after her, don’t go far!
She starts into the thicket of plants. It’s dark and smells like rainwater. A wood chip gets stuck in her jelly sandal, but she’s able to fish it out with her finger. There’s a cat, and it’s not her grandpa’s cat. A strange cat! It sits in the shade with its black and white spots and its yellow eyes.
“Here, pussy, pussy, pussy,” a man’s voice says behind her. It’s Marty! He grabs her by the waist. “Look at this little cat I caught!” he says, and Rachel is so happy because she has all his attention. Marty puts her down and crouches down on the ground and says “pst, pst, pst,” to the cat. The cat looks at him with yellow eyes and then runs away.
“That was a rotten cat, anyway,” Marty says. “What’s a little girl like you doing out here by yourself?”
“I am playing.”
“You’re playing? You wanna go back in the pool? How about we swim in the deep end?”
“My mom says I’m not allowed.”
“To go in the deep end.”
“Sure you are, if there’s an adult with you.” Marty takes a drink from the can of beer in his hand.
Rachel puts her hand on Marty’s oiled shoulder. “What if I drowned?”
“You won’t. Don’t worry. It’s not good for a little girl to be worried. It will age you. Remember that,” Marty says. He stands up and takes Rachel’s hand and they walk out of the bushes into the backyard. Connie and Michelle are stretched out flat in the sun like sardines, but the other grownups are inside.
Marty takes Rachel’s water wings from the ground and pushes them back on her arms and helps her out of her jelly sandals and then they wade onto the steps leading into the pool. Rachel puts her hand on the metal banister that bisects the steps, but it’s hot. She yelps and snatches her hand back. Marty tips forward and splashes into the water in front of them, then turns around and motions to her. “Come on,” he says, and she crouches down and paddles into the water toward Marty, latching onto his arm.
“Kick, kick, kick,” he says as he slowly moves into the deeper water. She is still clamped onto his forearm. She wriggles out further into the water than she’s ever been in her life. He grabs her by the waist again, holds her up. “You were falling, keep kicking.”
In the deep end of the pool, the blue of the water is a little bluer. Rachel puts her arms on Marty’s shoulders and lets her body drop into the water, kicking to keep her head up in the air. The grownups by the house look so far away! Marty stretches out one of his arms and hangs on to the edge of the pool, and uses the other arm to help hold her up. She is bobbing in jerking motions. Her face hits his arm, and she tastes the salt and the suntan oil on his skin.
“This is hard,” she says.
“I’ll carry you for a little, just hold on,” Marty says. She wraps her legs around his waist and her water-winged arms around his neck, and one of his hands wraps around her calf.
The grownups sitting by the other end of the pool get up from their lawn chairs and shield their eyes and look toward the house. Rachel can’t hear what they’re saying over the sound of the water filter. Marty starts humming. But then she hears a scream, it cuts through everything else because it’s loud and it’s also her mother’s scream. She puts her hand on Marty’s cheeks and points his face toward the house. “What’s that?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” Marty still has a hand on the side of the pool and is holding Rachel up, he kicks and stretches his neck to look at the back of the house. There’s another scream and then the back door swings open and Rachel’s mother comes running out, her skin is tan and there’s red but it’s not the bathing suit. Blood on her naked body.
Marty puts a hand over Rachel’s eyes. Her mom is not screaming anymore, so Rachel just kicks and kicks and rests her chin on Marty’s shoulder, letting her tongue graze his salty skin, staring at the hot lawn behind the deep end. But then she hears her mother’s voice again, cutting through the water filter. She pushes Marty’s hand off her face and turns around, and her mother is sitting on one of the chairs with her hands in her face. Connie runs toward the sliding glass door.
“Looks like mommy is in some trouble,” Marty whispers. “It’s ok, just stay with Marty.”
“Is mommy hurt?” Rachel asks. She sees her mother’s naked body heaving. And then Connie’s voice, clear as could be through the open sliding door as she screams into the telephone, No, he shot himself!
“Looks like we’d better get out,” Marty says. He drags her through the pool to the steps. Connie has wrapped a towel around Rachel’s mother and is leading her back towards the house. Rachel’s grandfather is standing next to the sliding door. Marty and Rachel walk up.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Rachel’s grandfather says. He pats her head.
Marty picks Rachel up and then covers her face with the t-shirt he has in his hand. “How does watching tv in grandpa’s room sound?”
Rachel nods into the damp, black t-shirt.
They walk. Marty keeps Rachel’s face covered. He whispers, Fucking Christ. He pushes a door open.
Rachel’s grandpa’s room has a big white bed. The tv sits on a bamboo table at the bed’s foot, and there are bookshelves in all the walls, which has the effect of making the room feel dark and small. Marty puts Rachel down in the middle of the bed and then goes up to the tv and presses the button near the bottom of the screen, turning it on.
“I don’t know the damn channels upstate,” he says.
The television goes from golf to the weather to the news to tennis. Finally, Scooby Doo.
A siren wails outside the house.
“Just stay put, okay kid?” Marty says.
Marty goes into the hallway and closes the door most of the way, but it’s open a sliver, enough for Rachel to see the floral carpet in the hallway. There are men’s voices in the kitchen. On the tv the cartoon dog and his friend are on a haunted ghost ship. Everything is green and blue and grey. The dog and his friend stop to eat sandwiches.
Outside the bedroom, there are footsteps—boots on the rose print carpet.
Marty comes back in, and he has a plastic cup with a brown, seedy drink sloshing around inside. “Let’s go,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.”
Then behind him, a police officer is suddenly standing in the door. Rachel knows that he’s a police officer, she recognizes his uniform. “Sir, why don’t you step outside into the hallway?” the police officer says to Marty.
“It’s alright, she knows me.”
“Sir,” the police officer says, putting his hand on Marty’s oily shoulder.
Marty opens his mouth as if to say something then closes it and walks out. The police officer walks over to Rachel and crouches down in front of her. He’s blocking the tv. He has a thick head of black hair and an accent Rachel only hears when she is home in the city.
“Do you want to play a game?” he asks her.
Rachel knows this is not a game.
“I’m going to pick you up and you’re going to close your eyes and keep them closed until we get outside. And if you can do that, keep them closed that whole time, you’ll get a prize. Got it?”
Rachel nods. She closes her eyes and then she’s in the air, and the police officer is walking.
“I’ve got the kid!” he yells. “I’m gonna get her out of here for a little while until this mess gets cleaned up!”
He puts her down outside, next to his black police car, which is in the driveway. He opens the backdoor.
“Do you need a car seat?” he asks her.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t use one.”
The police officer looks around as if wanting to ask one of his friends, but there is nobody else out in the driveway. Only ambulances and cars, with flashing lights; but even those appear empty. “Well, it’s alright,” he says. “We’ll drive careful.”
Rachel looks at the backseat of the police car then back at the house. She is not supposed to get in the car with strangers. She is supposed to listen to police officers. She gets into the back of the car.
“Shit,” the police officer says. “Your shoes are inside. Well, we’ll just be careful.” He gets into the front seat.
They drive for a little while and go through the neighborhood and the houses get smaller then there are no houses at all and then the car stops in a parking lot in front of a 7/11, which is a store Rachel knows. She waits for the police officer to open the back door for her.
When he does, he says, “Be careful for glass,” and she gets out and walks barefoot on the hot, black pavement and follows him into the store.
Behind the counter, there is a man in a green-and-black polo who seems to know the police officer, and they start to talk. There is a lot to look at in the store. The tile floor is cold. There are giant, clear tanks churning rainbow colored slush. There are brownies wrapped in plastic. There are hotdogs rolling on sticks in a case. There are scratch off-lottery tickets, like the ones Rachel’s grandpa gives out at Passover. Rachel walks down one of the aisles and there are more cookies and brownies wrapped in plastic, black-and-white cookies, and rainbow cookies, and chocolate chip cookies. She reaches out for one of the black-and-white cookies. It’s big, she carries it with two hands. She keeps walking. There are lots of drinks in a big refrigerator. In another aisle, there are cups of instant noodles and pens and notebooks and magazines. The police officer is standing by the scratch-off tickets. His back is to her. Rachel walks up next to him and puts the cookie on the counter.
“That’s all you want?” he asks her.
Behind the man with the green-and-black polo, there are little boxes of cigarettes in different colors, and there are little bottles of liquor. In front of Rachel, there are candy bars, peanut M&Ms and tubes of tiny M&Ms, packs of gum with watermelons on them, or with rainbow zebras on them. There are chocolate bars and different chocolate bars in a white wrapper, and there are packages of little, red gummy fish.
“That’s all you want?” the police officer asks again.
Above her, an air vent is blowing and her skin prickles up against the chilly air.
Rebecca Greenes Gearhart is from New York and her work has appeared in American Chordata and 34th Parallel. She writes fiction primarily concerned with themes surrounding the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish American identity, and is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Notre Dame.