John’s been dead two weeks and Haley, their oldest, wants to go to the pool. “All right,” Jean tells her, but she doesn’t like Haley’s friends. In only a summer, the girls have begun to look cheap, the boys menacing. Haley’s smart mouth makes Jean wonder what she’ll do without John, who lowered his voice and said hey, ok when the kids acted up. I feel rough he said one morning. A month later: It’s spread to the liver. We’ve done all we can here.
“You wear that cover-up or you don’t go,” Jean says, afraid Haley will seem easy, or careless. She knows the age. At 14 the more you say, the bigger chance of a fight. “And be right where I tell you to be when time’s up.”
“Don’t be smart.”
A little hey now would help, but Jean is fuming. She drops her keys and curses, making the boys snicker. They are nine and eleven, eating cereal at the breakfast bar John built. Haley ignores them and to get even, they hate her. It drove John crazy: Aren’t we a family, guys? Aren’t we?
“I’m serious, Haley. I’m not having any of this crap that Sophia’s doing.” Jean heard it from her friend, who heard from the boy’s mother, who said “The girl should put the brakes on. I mean he’s 15, what do you expect?”
She turns away from Haley and swipes at the counter with a sponge.
“Don’t leave the pool area.”
“Mom, I’m not walking home in a bathing suit.”
“And tell me if something happens that you shouldn’t be part of.”
John’s a mumble at her ear: All the good stuff is stuff you shouldn’t be part of. Remember? She turns to face Haley, who’s pulled the cover-up over her brown body. Who’s so beautiful, older boys at the pool have been eyeing her. Lifeguards. Grown men.
“And no flirting, Haley.”
Haley throws her sandals down.
“Then I’m not going!” Arms crossed, she is a perfect imitation of John imitating her. Jean hasn’t laughed much since John said Damn, this hurts but she laughs now, and keeps laughing until she coughs. She leans on the counter, then sits down on the floor. For a moment she considers staying there, just to see what it might be like: giving up. The kids are watching, smiling but unsure.
They remember it as the worst summer, though most of it they forget. Jean won’t recall those seconds she sat on the floor, balled up like a spent flower. What she remembers is that she made it to her feet. She remembers the force it took to get there and how she managed to say, in a voice like John’s, “Forget it. Let’s all go.”