Having failed to pay the rent for three months, my mother, my little brother, and I came home to find an eviction notice on our trailer. The front door was barred. Even when my mother threw her body against the door, it wouldn’t budge. It was nine o’clock at night. She had left her purse in the house. We had nowhere to go. My brother started to cry.
“What are we going to do?” I said.
“Let’s go skinny-dipping,” my mother said.
“What’s skinny-dipping?” my brother asked.
“Swimming without any clothes,” my mother said.
“But where?” I asked.
“The quarry,” she said.
So we went skinny-dipping in the cloudy water of the quarry, despite the rumors that there were dead bodies at the bottom. No one knew it for a fact, but that’s what people said. Every year, a couple of people from the trailer park vanished. Other residents of the park liked to think that the people who disappeared never got far. No one wanted to believe that someone had managed to escape the poverty we were still living in.
The night was pitch-black. I thought about corpses lying underneath us. I imagined the dead spirits made restless by our screaming, dodging our kicking feet and splashing arms, wanting to drag us beneath the surface. I hadn’t seen my father in a long time. I wondered if my mother wished he was below us, so she could think we were harassing him with our happy shouts and splashing.
“Isn’t the water nice?” my mother asked.
“Sure is,” I said.
“Do you think there’s scary things we can’t see?” my brother asked.
“I sure hope so,” my mother said. “There’d better be more to the world than this trailer park.”
“Do you think Dad’s here?” I said.
“You mean . . . ?” She pointed below.
“No,” she said. “He would have pulled us under by now.”
Somehow my mother managed to get the rent paid. The eviction notice was taken down, the door unbarred. But the quarry remained.
My brother and I always visited the quarry together; it was too scary to go alone. One time my brother commanded me to bring the jar of pennies we had been saving. I had no idea why he wanted me to drag our money along with us, but I shoved the jar in my backpack, and we trekked to the quarry.
We sat at the edge and looked into the water, half expecting to see some ghostly form flitting below us. Then my brother opened up the backpack, took out the jar, and threw an entire handful of pennies into the quarry.
I couldn’t believe it; I wanted to slug him. That was money we had been saving from our allowance, which we received infrequently at best. Those pennies could have provided us with an entire afternoon of entertainment.
But for some reason I didn’t yell at him. I even thought I knew why he’d done it. Perhaps he believed that people from the trailer park really did disappear into the quarry, and this was his way of communicating with them, of reassuring them that we were OK and even had money to spare.
Or perhaps he was taunting them, reminding them that it’s possible to thrive, even in a trailer park. Then, if their spirits were reborn, maybe they wouldn’t give up so easily or allow themselves to be lured into a fatal mistake.
Or maybe the coins were simply a gift, a token the dead needed to pass through the gates of the underworld. The spirits would catch the coppers and hand them to the river-ghost guardian.
I dug into the jar and threw several handfuls into the water, shouting for the spirits to take our money. We were so loud that the other trailer-park kids ran from their homes to come and watch us. Happily, we threw our treasure into the quarry, expecting nothing in return. The memory of our friends cheering us on lasted for days.
After I won the schoolwide spelling bee, I went on to the district level. The final round was between me and a girl who talked like a robot. The two of us stood before a roomful of parents and school principals, who feigned interest in our ability to spell obscure words. The girl’s voice was tinny, and she paused between each letter with a measured, mechanical accuracy. While I sweated nervously, her facial expression was one of steadfast calm. She deserved to beat me, I thought.
My mother, I knew, felt differently. I imagined her running up to the girl after I’d lost and tearing off her face, revealing her as an android.
When the moderator declared my opponent the winner, the girl expressed no joy. Her mother came up on the stage and hugged her tight, but still the girl gave no response. She didn’t even hug her own mother.
My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me into the hallway to have a word with me. “We should protest,” she said.
“We’re in America,” she said. “Jejune is not an American word. It’s one of those artsy-fartsy French words. They knew.”
“What did they know?”
“That you’re from a trailer park. That you’re not that sophisticated.”
“OK, I’m being ridiculous, I guess,” she said. “It’s just that winning doesn’t mean anything to that girl. There’s something weird about her.”
“I think she’s a robot,” I said.
“Maybe.” She laughed. “Let’s go and congratulate her. She might have won, but at least you have a personality.”
We went back into the room and congratulated the winner.
“You’re really smart,” I said.
“I have no response to that,” she said.
My mother rolled her eyes at me.
All the school principals had gathered around. “What a close competition,” one of them said.
“It wasn’t,” I said. “I knew she was going to win.”
“She could easily have gotten a word she didn’t know,” the principal insisted.
“She knows all the words,” I said. “It wasn’t luck.”
“My girl is a machine,” the mother said.
My mother pinched my arm and then excused us, saying we had an appointment.
As the day of the national spelling bee approached, I confessed to my mother that every night I’d been praying that the girl would get into a car accident: nothing fatal, just severe enough that she wouldn’t be able to move her mouth. Then I could go to the nationals in her place. Not that an accident would hurt her. They’d just reassemble her.
My prayers were not answered, and the night of the national competition, my mother took me out to dinner. We couldn’t afford to eat out, so it was a big deal. “We’re going to live large,” she said. “We’re going to Red Lobster.” Red Lobster was my favorite expensive restaurant. My mother always made my brother and me wear a suit and tie when we went there.
This night, however, she said, “I’m calling a baby sitter for your brother. This is a special dinner, just for me and you. To celebrate your victory.”
“But I lost.”
“But you won before you lost. You don’t get everything you want in life.” And she kissed my forehead. Then she added, “I’m so happy you want things. That was the problem with your dad. He forgot how to want.”
On the way to Red Lobster, I noticed that she was wearing too much rouge. I found this charming. She always tried hard to make things special. So did I. Our efforts were so intense that we sometimes came off as loud and melodramatic, and people found us annoying. They didn’t understand that we just wanted to make something about ourselves memorable.
At the restaurant, the waiter took our orders. “Would you like shrimp on your salad?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. It felt so extravagant. At home we ate like typical Midwesterners: casseroles and meatloaf.
“That’s fifty cents extra,” the waiter said to my mother.
“Fifty cents?” my mother said.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I don’t need it.”
“It’s fine,” she said.
“So, Mr. Big Bucks,” he said to me, “that salad will have shrimp, then?”
“I said it will,” my mother said.
He took the rest of our order and left. “That fifty cents is coming out of that little bastard’s tip,” my mother said.
I laughed. My mother took everything so seriously. She made things feel as if they mattered.
“I want to tell you a story,” she said. “It might make you feel better about the spelling bee.” She told me that, when she was a girl, her favorite activity had been to jump on the trampoline in gym class. Her gym teacher told her she was a natural. One of her foster parents bought her a trampoline so she could practice at home. She joined the school gymnastics team and won many meets. She was state champion. She was going to be in the national competition, but she never made it. She ended up landing wrong and breaking both her knees. Her athletic career was over.
“It must have been cool to win state,” I said.
“Want to know my favorite memory?” she said. One day, she told me, she was outside on her trampoline. She jumped the highest she had ever jumped, so high she caught a bird.
I didn’t care if she was lying.
“What did you do with it?” I asked.
“I kissed it,” she said, “and then let it go.”
“Is that safe, to kiss a bird?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t think about that. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
I loved my mother so much. I loved the idea of her jumping into the air and catching a bird. I wished she had never come back down, but had taken off with the bird and flown away. She belonged in the sky with all the other heavenly creatures.
“I’m never going to catch a bird in a spelling bee,” I said.
“No,” she said, “but there are other things you can catch.”
“You can catch things with words?”
“You can catch God,” she said. “That’s why you want to be a writer. You want to catch God. Don’t be afraid. You’ll only have him for a brief moment, and then you’ll have to let him go.”