by Brian Kerstetter
The Bathing Suit.
Each summer, O. and I rent a car with some friends and drive from New York City to the small town in Ohio where I grew up. We play tennis, nap in the hammock and swim off my parents’ pontoon boat in Lake Mohawk. In the evenings the girls drink lemonade and plunge their fingers into mounds of cool ground beef, sculpting chubby hamburgers for the grill. When it rains, we pile into my Dad’s pickup and bide our time at the local Salvation Army, where my friends ridicule the size of Midwestern clothes.
This particular Salvation Army, in a shed behind the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, oozes the mushroomy aroma of my parents’ cellar. Far from pooh-poohing hand-me-downs, I actually prefer them. Anything belonging to Grandpa, mine or someone else’s, I covet. The more a corduroy holds the bouquet of old Uncle Albert, the more I’ll fork over for it. Leaving town for college, in 1985, I laid out a small fortune for an anthology of mothy tweeds and velvet blazers I knew belonged to my pal Dougy Atkins’s freshly-fossilized Grandad. Call me a hearse chaser, but I’ve been know to scan the Obits, set to pounce on the still-warm togs of old Wilbur Yoder or Bobby Oyster the moment they button their tailored waistcoats for the last time.
On this occasion, as we pulled into the parking lot, a woman in a pink nightgown was smoking a cigarette on a donated couch.
“How much?” I asked.
She looked down at her nightie and said two bucks.
“The couch, I mean.”
“Two bucks,” she said before I’d finished speaking.
“And the nightgown?” O. said.
The woman scrunched her unibrow, flicked her cigarette in the weeds, and disappeared inside.
“Kiko, yoo-hoo,” O. called from the Plus Size racks.
Makiko paid no attention, consumed by a pair of $2 dollar Lucite heels.
“Looks like Chaa-nel,” he added, summoning the magic C-word, and Makiko dropped everything and marched over in a trance.
“Eyes,” he said, waiting for her to close her eyes.
O. stepped back and flung a raggedy parachute high over head. We all raised our eyes to watch it unfurl, catch the florescent light, and cascade over Makiko, engulfing her body like a colossal used Kleenex. After adjusting the fit, O. led her by the shoulders to the mirror.
Makiko blinked. And blinked again. She squinted, thinking she might recognize the figure standing before her. Then it clicked. The full horror of her predicament registered with blinding clarity. There she stood, draped in a pair of graying Fruit of the Loom Men’s underwear, size XXXL. The overhead light flickered and a monstrous calm descended. Her head turned full circle, like in the movie The Exorcist. I thought she’d devil an egg on the spot. Or bend a spoon, like Uri Geller, with her psychokinetic fury. Then she gave birth, boosting off through the ends of her hair, the sheer force whipping O.’s hair into an impromptu Elvis impersonation. Her mouth turned rubbery, like a skydiver’s, and produced a hollow … croak.
“Wasn’t so bad,” O. said. And snapped her picture. The camera’s flash – and I’ll never forget this – illuminated the convulsing tonsils at the back of her throat like raw meat quivering in a butcher’s window.
Having forgotten his bathing suit in New York, O. had hopes of procuring a second-hand substitute. He slipped into the changing room with a rainbow number from the 1980’s.
“I’m fat, Makiko,” he announced, flinging open the curtains, half-naked, and peering down at the hairy bowl of Jell-O lounging above his bathing suit.
Again, a more ardent advocate of used togs you will not find. But underwear, socks and, oh, bathing suits, there I draw the line. And I said as much. But he wouldn’t step away from the garment. Then it dawned on me, the situation could be more dire than imagined.
“Your underwear, Bub?” I said, suddenly unsure whether he’d kept his Superman briefs on under that suit.
“Not bad, eh?” O. concluded, examining himself in the mirror. Then grabbing a fistful of spare tire, muttered, “Fat Motherfucker.”
Suspecting the worst, we all stepped back, as though the suit were dipped in urine. O. gave the drawstrings a fresh tie.
“Underwear,” I repeated with greater urgency, moving toward him. “YOU, SIR, ARE WEARING GODDAMN UNDERWEAR OR I…”
No sooner had I launched my threat than I caught sight of the Superman logo in a limp pile of clothes behind him. That’s when O. put his shirt back on, stuffed his underwear in his pocket and announced, “I’ll take it!” and sashayed through the racks to the cashier.
Professor Splash is renowned for diving head first into shallow pools from great heights. On his website he sports an Einstein hairstyle, his chest puffed out, in a 1920’s one-piece bathing suit. His homepage features a flashing crawl: “Book the Professor for your next corporate event!” A 2008 YouTube video shows him diving into a 12-inch bucket of water. The Scottsdale Tribune ran the headline: “Pain lasts a minute. Glory, a lifetime.“ I googled him only to find his popularity waned the following year, when he leapt from the Valley Presbyterian Charter School into a Fred Flintstone kiddy pool, before a class of horrified preschoolers.
I only bring him up because he flashed to mind in the aftermath of O.’s burst of caveman bravado at the Alliance Country Club swimming pool. In a bid to amuse his young wife, he leapt out of his deck chair, kicked his flip-flops in the air and dove head-first into the shallow end of the pool.
He resurfaced, after floating awhile, pie-eyed and muttering gobbledy-gook about the Third Reich. A bump that size, I told him, would mean a change in hat size. Makiko said it looked like a bird was ruffling its feathers under his scalp. Lonergan, an Irishman normally face down in a crossword or a pint of ale, referenced an episode of Wile E. Coyote. Never seen that before, I mean in real life, he said..
That left O. with only one free hand for the remainder of the weekend, employing one to apply ice to his brain. That evening, at the restaurant, I felt pity watching him try to butter a dinner roll. He pushed it around the table like a dry turd, until I thought the waiter would confiscate our bread basket.
When everyone had ordered cocktails and appetizers, I asked for an espresso.
“Sir?” the waiter said, expecting my drink order.
“Espresso,” I repeated. “And that crumble thingy.”
O.’s left eyebrow twitched.
You see, for years, O. and I had dreamed of taking a seat at our habitual restaurant and ordering our dinner backwards. This meant starting with espresso and dessert, right down the line, concluding with a cocktail and a run-through of that evening’s specials. O. was convinced our waitress’s Mother Board would fry and smoke would billow from her ears. Human beings are robots, he’d say. When they’re not being complete idiots. To cheer him up, I thought we’d have that back-to-front dinner now.
“Espresso, me too!” O. called out with such buoyancy I thought he’d soil his trousers. “A double! And the mousse!”
I unhinged a queasy smile in the direction of my parents. Then, like Al Capone unloading a semi-automatic into an unsuspecting victim, O. rat-a-tat-tatted his order.
“Espresso. Double! Apple crumble! No, mouse! What? Pork! Yes. No! Medium. I mean, Rare! Salad? No, Caprese! Vinaigrette. Balsamic! Bread. Butter. Breadsticks! And, Miss, gin. And, tonic!”
The restaurant fell silent. My Mother and Father leaned into their menus, as though finishing a Stephen King novel. Makiko hid behind hers.
“Take a breath, fella,” I said.
I told Makiko the clunk on the noggin had scrambled his wires, temporarily, of course. And smiled sympathetically. Then I turned to my Father, “Chrissake, he’s miles away. And by miles, I mean miles.”
So O. and I threw our meals in reverse, putting away the courses, one by one, backwards to forwards. Retreating through dinner seemed to calm the lunatic’s nerves. That is, until the check arrived. O. grabbed it like a parking ticket and jumped to his feet.
“Majorie, what’s this?” he barked.
"Take a seat,” I declared, prepared to confront him.
“I won’t, Madame!” And pointing a finger at his half-finished appetizer, announced, “I may got a lump on the brain, people, but even I knows the check comes after dessert!"
“I’d rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.”
The Catcher in the Rye.
When in Ohio, we always pay a visit to my Mother’s faithful horse, Chaparelle. My friends, city slickers all, feed her lumps of sugar and go for “rides.” Back in New York, to hear them talk, you’d think they commandeered a bucking bronco through the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase, over glade and gorge, jumping fences and ditches and generally traversing many obstacles. In fact, each ride consists of my Mother walking them once round the paddock, at 3 miles-an-hour, while Chappy casts a glum eye left and right.
“Here, Chappy. Here ya go,” O. said dangling a carrot through the metal fence.
The full weight of the beast’s tongue lulled over O.’s hand, compressing it against the electric fence. Yellow sparks danced from O.’s fingernails, and he waved them in the air like sparklers on the Fourth of July. A curlicue of smoke drifted from the animal’s left nostril. Chappy whinnied and reared. O. whinnied and reared. The carrot snapped and flipped through the air like Chinese stir fry.
Wild-eyed, O. proclaimed his desire to take the old girl for a spin. I opposed the idea. We argued. Insults changed hands, most referencing the other’s physical shape.
“Out of the ring, Pea,” I said.
“Up yours, Horseface,” O. responded, which I found particularly insensitive, being within earshot of Chappy, and all.
“Stand down, Missy,” I shot back. “Or is it your medicine you want?”
Sadly, O. produced a gesture, neither suitable for his wife nor my Mother.
I couldn’t abide this and bounded over the fence to add a companion bump to his skull when, out of the blue, O. launched himself onto Chappy. "Vamooshe!” he called, and off they went. As a group, we hollered at him. Individually, some mocked him. Lonergan called out, “You’ll fill your pants, Amigo!” Chappy ripped and cavorted, jerking her passenger this way and that until, at one point, O.’s heels flopped above his head and the whole crowd of us hooted and waved our caps, laughing till our eyes shone with tears.
That’s when Chappy broke fence. You could hear the piss and vinegar awash in both man and mule, galloping full blazes round and round the paddock until, I kid you not, O. ricocheted into an upright position and began saluting the crowd, like Mussolini at a May Day rally, shedding maneuvers so thick and heavy they clogged the air. That’s when he further congested the good air with a Haiku:
“There once was a fellow McSweeny
Who spilled some gin on his ween…”
“That’s a Limerick, Dumbass,” someone called out.
Embittered, he polluted the open air with yet another Haiku:
“There once was a fellow O'Doole
Who found little red spots on his tool…"
Back in New York, several weeks later, O. and I were flipping through the Ohio photos – pastoral images of O. swimming, O. barbecuing, O. horseback riding – all with one arm.
“Not half bad,” I complimented. “Just one arm and all. But makes you think…”
“Just, you know…”
“Well, you make life look so easy with one arm. You’d think with two arms … I mean… with two arms you should be wildly successful.”
“Should I? Really?” O. replied, miffed by the insinuation.
Then, in a moment of rare profundity, one of those unrehearsed instants for which I shall always be grateful, when God acquiesces to toss a few crumbs, a few glorious crumbs of unblemished enlightenment on the human tongue, O. snorted:
“Blah and blah. If my Auntie had balls, she’d be my Uncle.”