Summer Break

Summer Break

A Story by Jim

This is a short story I've been working on for a while. It's supposed to be a "light," humorous story, in no particular genre.

“So how’s school going?”  

Aunt Estelle smiled.  Some of her lipstick had smeared into the crevice that ran from the left corner of her mouth to the left side of her chin.  The bright dining room lights outlined the smear in sharp detail, like a stylized thunderbolt emblazoned across a football jersey.  It gave Jason something to stare at.  A way to avoid looking in her eyes.  He wasn’t feeling tactful.  

Normally The Question would be the first words out of her mouth.  When he was working on his GED, she was always asking him about “school,” though he wondered if sitting for three hours Monday through Thursday in a study lounge in the Adult Learning Center counted.  But today she had been too busy talking about Stephanie--Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie, the entire ride from the Greyhound station nothing but Stephanie.  His father had left with someone named Stephanie.  Aunt Estelle mentioned in passing that Stephanie had graduated from James K. Polk High the spring before last.  Evidently, Aunt Estelle figured that they must know each other because they were the same age.  She knew everyone her age in town, so she must have assumed the same went for everyone else.

Jason hadn’t set foot in James K. Polk High since he was six years old, and that had been in the pool--an incident that involved more chlorine inhalation than learning. Ever since he’d made a point of avoiding the place, even refraining from cutting through the parking lot when he’d been late to a test at the Adult Learning Center. Ordinarily he would take of advantage of any hypotenuse he could find.  The hypotenuse and its handy shortness compared to the sum of the triangle’s legs appeared to be the only mathematical concept that would ever do you any good, especially if you had a habit of waking up late on test days.  

They were sitting in Aunt Estelle’s dining room, because his mother had sold the house--the house Jason would have described as “his”--and used the money to go on an extended vacation in France.  She had wanted to get away from the memories (Aunt Estelle’s phrase), though Jason couldn’t remember any memories worth trying to forget.  He and his parents had spent most of their time on the road since he was eight, so he had never developed much of an attachment to the place, but it was supposed to be his “permanent address.”  That’s what he’d put down on the college application.      

Aunt Estelle fixed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chattering merrily away about Stephanie.  (A vindictive type of merriment, but merriment nonetheless.)  Jason knew she was doing her best to act outraged, but it was clear that her love of talking equaled, perhaps even surpassed, her loyalty to her sister.  He was beginning to hope that her zeal for all things Stephanie would be so boundless that she would forget The Question long enough for him to pretend to be tired, slipping away to the spare bedroom just before The Question could catch him.  

Aunt Estelle turned around, set the sandwiches on the table, and hit him with IT.

Jason picked up a sandwich, took a bite, and chewed slowly, as though the profundity of his freshman experience were difficult to translate into words.  Not slowly enough, though, for she asked a second time, and louder.  

“So how are you liking school?”  

He was grateful for the rephrase.  You can believe in learning for its own sake, knowledge as a transcendent end unto itself which could never be reduced to something as paltry as a letter grade.  In other words, you can flunk and still like it, can’t you?  

 “Good.  Real (hack!) good.”  His tongue tried to stick the -ly on the end of real, but the peanut butter glued it to the roof of his mouth for a second.  The good came out fine, though.  He hoped she wouldn't notice.  He tried to smile, but he gulped instead and his Adam’s apple bobbled under his skin.  He could feel it quivering around down there, and worse, he could visualize what it looked like. He'd it in the mirror a time or two.

“It’s ‘well,’ dear,” Aunt Estelle said.  She was going into second-grade teacher mode, and all hope was lost for getting her back on adult-to-adult equal footing.  “‘Good’ is an adjective, and ‘well’ is an adverb.  So it’s ‘well,’ because adjectives only modify nouns, while adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other--”

Jason choked.  It might have begun as intentional grunt cum groan, the only way he could think of stopping her from moving on to the difference between “real” and “really.”  But Aunt Estelle’s Wonder bread was on the doughy side, her strawberry preserves extra-chunky, and her peanut butter’s consistency suggested that it had been congealing in her fridge since the Carter administration.  It all managed to clump up and cement itself onto his uvula or something back there in his throat (he hadn’t exactly aced Human Anatomy).  In a second or two he realized he wasn’t just pretending to gasp for air.  

“Are you all right, honey?”  Aunt Estelle was smiling down on him (down now because he was hunkered over the pink pandas checkered across her table cloth, trying to get gravity on his side), but her smile was tinged with that getting-ready-to-call-911 alertness he remembered from her tenure as his baby-sitter fifteen years ago.

“Yes,” Jason replied, but it came out Yaaahh-uhh-uhh-uhh!  He always wished people wouldn’t talk to you when you’re desperately trying to breathe.  It requires a certain amount of concentration.

“Here, dear, I’ll get you some water.”  Her voice took on the you’re-probably-overreacting-so-we’ll-pretend-it’s-nothing-but-I-still-have-the-phone-handy-in-case-you-start-to-turn-purple cheeriness he recalled so well from his childhood skinned knees and stubbed toes.

“Thanks.”  Probably didn’t come across as casually as he intended.  More of a Tha-ha-ha-huh-huck!

When she came back from the kitchen her smile had stretched out even farther, and she was nodding encouragement as if he were struggling with a long division problem, and she was proud of him for keeping at it.  “Here, just drink this down and see if you don’t feel better.”

She handed him a Winnie the Pooh glass.  Winnie had one satisfied paw resting on his ample belly and the other even more satisfied paw stuck in his mouth.  It was real glass though, not plastic.  Looked like something you’d order out of the back of Parade, complete with a limited edition number and a certificate of authenticity.

He took a gulp.  The water gurgled around in the back of his throat, and then, in something between a sneeze and a hiccup, spewed right back out again, with such force that a gelatinous ball of Wonder bread and peanut-butter-and-jelly goop erupted across the room and splattered on Aunt Estelle’s Betty Boop calendar.  Winnie slipped from his convulsing fingers and shattered on the pale pink linoleum.

“Oh, don’t worry, dear,” she sighed.  “You have a right to be upset.”

He looked at her, and for a moment he thought she knew.  Somehow she had guessed that he’d failed every class.  Women’s intuition or something.  An aunt’s omniscience.

“This is hardest on you.  It’s always worst for the child.”

The divorce.  The child.  He was the child.  Of course.  He had a right to break things.  His parents were getting divorced.  He was the victim.

*     *     *
When Jason was in third grade his mother told him he was going to be leaving school.  He didn’t object.  He did the Funky Robot.  They were standing in the driveway, next to Dad’s new box van--a brand new diesel Ford.  Across the side was a huge smiling cartoon eel and the caption: EEL MEAL, WONDER FOOD OF THE FUTURE, TODAY!
Next Friday was the end of the school year.  Mrs. Borg stood at the front of the classroom and handed out report cards.  Usually the parents picked them up at the principal’s office, but for year end Mrs. Borg put happy-face stickers on the envelopes (regardless of their contents) and handed them to the kids themselves.  It was also the day that the last Student of the Month was awarded.  

He was digging through an old trunk in Aunt Estelle’s spare bedroom when he found the certificate.  He’d forgotten all about it.  Jason L. Fryer: Student of the Month, Franklin Pierce Elementary, May 2000.  A piece of construction paper with a photograph of his gap-toothed eight-year-old self, stuck under the fourth- through twelfth-grade math books (unread and unmarked in for the most part).

Proof!  Definitive proof that he couldn’t have been that bad of a student--right?  Everyone knew that being Student of the Month was more or less a formality--well, maybe they wouldn’t have said “formality,” whatever term third-graders use when they mean “formality.”  Jason couldn’t remember; it was too long ago.  Everyone got to be Student of the Month once in a while, unless you blew up the principal’s office or something, and elementary school students don’t, generally speaking, have access to chemistry sets.  So he hadn’t actually “earned” the certificate, but if he’d been a truly atrocious student they would have found a way to give it to someone else.  

He wished he could remember Franklin Pierce better.  Kids who chewed with their mouths open, talked with macaroni clinging to their teeth.  He remembered them talking about swimming.  His mind always honed in on things everyone else could do that he couldn’t do.  Foremost among them: swimming and math.  But kids don’t talk about math--they talk about swimming, because it’s fun.  Fun out at Lake Lucille in the summer.

Most of the fun sounded fairly generic (fun usually is), and the only memory that stuck out was their talk about the island in the lake.  Jason’s parents had taken him to Lake Lucille a few times for a Memorial Day or Fourth of July picnic, and there was something about the island that had always fascinated him.  It was far away enough from shore to be just a bit mysterious--was that a hut out there, or just an unusually shaped rock?  It was hilly too, covered with tall pines, so that Jason could easily imagine something--someone?-- in the little valleys in the interior.  

When he listened to them talking about fun out at the lake, Jason must have blurted out something about that island, something about his fascination with it.  They told him that a crazy old man lived out on that island.  He lived in a little hut in the interior.  He was rich--he had everything he needed in a vault hidden on the island somewhere.  But he didn’t care about he outside world--he just sat out on the island and listened to the wind rustle through the trees, the waves lap against the rocks.  He never worried about anything.  They said they had swum out there and talked to him.

Jason might have believed them back then.  Might have.  He wasn’t sure--little kids do believe the craziest things, after all.  They knew he wouldn’t be able to swim out there and find out for himself.

*     *     *

For the next seven years, his schooling had involved sitting propped against the passenger-side door of the van, staring down at a textbook, pretending to study.  Most of the time his parents were too busy arguing about expenses or inventory to notice what sort of progress he was making.  Or he would be sitting on an aluminum folding chair in a health food fair in one enormous expo center after another, elbows on his knees, staring at multiplication tables until the lines and curves on the page twisted into a swirl, and he gave up and thought about something else.  Thinking about something else was so easy.  The history textbooks--things that actually happened, people who actually lived, life, death, struggle, all of that.  It was a good deal more absorbing than Please My Dear Aunt Sally--or was it Please my Dear Sister Anne?  He could never remember which.  

But the problem was more the impossibility than the boredom, especially when he came to  algebra.  He could spend all afternoon trying to factor one trinomial and still get it wrong.  Something always escaped him, came out backwards. 

“I just don’t think I have the right type of brain,” he told Aunt Estelle.  She insisted on talking to him whenever she called Mom (which was every other day, at least), and of course she always had to ask The Question.  

“Oh, don’t worry, dear,” she replied.  “It’s just logic.  And you’re so logical.  You’ll get it eventually.”

He wanted to make two points.  One, he wondered what it was about him that she thought was so logical (he couldn’t come up with anything).  And, two, he didn’t see anything logical about math.  To him, it looked like a bunch of pretty arbitrary rules you were supposed to follow in a myriad of complex and not particularly logical ways.  Like a negative times a negative equaling a positive.  It might be right, but it’s not exactly logical.

He took the GED when he turned eighteen and wasn’t surprised to find that he aced writing, humanities, and social sciences, and just barely passed math.  Just barely (it was just the GED, after all).  But it was enough to get him into college.

*     *     *     

When he was six or seven his babysitter Karen took him and the other kids to James K. Polk  High to go swimming.  She said they were going to go swimming, as if they all knew how to (and of course they did; apparently everyone did).  She didn’t say they were going to learn how to swim, like she might say they were going to the train museum to learn about trains, if someone asked why they were going (probably a girl, because the boys all liked trains and assumed you didn’t need a reason to go look at them; Jason was no exception).  They were going to the pool to do something they all already knew how to do--at the end of the day there would be no net change.  And he knew this was going to be bad.  Being-the-last-to-learn-how-to-tie-your-shoelaces bad.  Too-afraid-to-go-into-the-men’s-restroom-by-yourself-at-Dairy-Queen bad.  Bad.  So bad he couldn’t say anything--that would only make it worse.  

But Karen looked at him and said, “Hmm, Jason.  The shallow end is four feet.  And you’re definitely over four feet tall.  Don’t worry.”

So Mom had told her.

And it was true--he was tall.  Definitely taller than the others.  A reason to feel good, even if he couldn’t take credit for it, but that doesn’t matter when you’re seven, anyway.  Things are good or things are bad--you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about why.

But not quite tall enough.  He jumped into the shallow end, pretending he wasn’t scared, but as soon as his feet touched bottom the water went right up his nose.  It wouldn’t drown him--he knew that; you can’t drown from a little water up the nose.  But his body had its own ideas.  His hands flailed around--he told them to stop, that they were making him look like a scaredy-cat, that they were “making a scene,” as his father would say, but they didn’t listen to him.  They kept flailing.  They caught on a rope and hauled him up onto some sort of platform.  His feet were in cahoots--they gladly scrambled up onto it.  The water streamed out of his eyes and he looked around, still snorting and wincing and wishing he could turn the whole bodily control thing up into overdrive and jump back in.  

He was in the “Kiddy Korner” (there was a sign over it).  For the really little kids.  Three-year-olds.   He was surrounded by plastic turtles, dolphins, some amorphous thing that was probably supposed to be an octopus.  Kiddy toys--baby toys, almost.

And he had put himself there.

He pulled himself out, sat on the edge, and dangled his feet in the water.  He forced his mind into blankness, complete blankness--not crying, not even sniffling.  Just blank.  If the other kids made fun of him, he was too blank to notice.  Karen tried to talk him into trying again, but he ignored her.

*     *     *
The next day he pedaled out to Lake Lucille on his old three-speed Schwinn.  He couldn’t bring himself to ask to borrow one of Aunt Estelle’s vehicles; it just seemed too teenager.  

He sat down on the gravel and rested his head in his hands.  He could feel the wind flipping tufts of hair up from his scalp.  The gravel beneath his body was hard and hot; the breeze was cool but the ground was still hot from the glaring sun.  He slid off his sandals and let the waves lap his heels.  

He stripped to his cargo shorts and waded into the water.  To his knees, then his waist.  Then to his shoulders.

How do you keep the water from going up your nostrils?  He always wondered about that.  It seemed tempting to go get a clothespin and stick it on your nose.  What is it that keeps you from sinking?  Your motion.  You paddle with your arms and legs.  That keeps you from sinking.  You don’t have to try to float--your motion keeps you afloat.  He still couldn’t picture it. 

He waded in to his chin, the waves gently plashing against his lips and nose.  He couldn’t help wincing.  The waves looked so harmless.  Everybody else loved to go splashing around in the water.  So much fun.  So many people were having so much fun one minute and drowning the next.

He wanted to tell himself that all he’d ever been afraid of was embarrassment, but of course that wasn’t true.  He was alone out here.  No one to witness him making a fool of himself.  Or to watch him die.

He dove forward before the rational (or cowardly) part of his brain could tell him to stop.  He sunk fast--the speed astounded him.  He floundered around and swallowed a bunch of water and sunk even deeper and banged his head against a rock.  

But his height saved him.  All he had to do was stand up.  The water was less than six and a half feet deep. 

He waded back to shore, wheezing and sputtering, snot and tears running down his face.  

He got back on the Schwinn and started peddling toward home.

Cheating.  That’s what he wanted to do.  Just let him cheat once.  Every time he’d stared at those trinomials, every time he’d whittled them down and factored and factored and factored and then checked the answer in the back of the book and had seen just how far off he was, he wished he could cheat.  He didn’t care about the morality of it any more.  He’d send half of each paycheck to starving children in Africa for the rest of his life.  If he could figure out a way.  

If he could only cheat at swimming.  No fear of getting dragged in front of the Dean of Student Affairs there.  How can you cheat the water?  How can you cheat gravity?

He rounded a corner and the great gray concrete hulk of James K. Polk rose before him.  He averted his eyes as fast as he could, but not before “POOL” in huge aqua-blue letters managed to ram its way into his sight.  Thanks for the reminder, Life, he grumbled, almost out loud, as he pictured his seven-year-old self standing in the Kiddy Korner with all those smiling inflatable toys.   

Inflatable devices . . . 

*     *     *
But it wasn’t as helpful as he’d expected.  It kept his torso afloat--though that terrified part of himself didn’t quite trust it.  It was buoyant, yes, but there was a part of his brain--the primitive, pants-peeing part--that always believed it was about to give out on him, as if the Styrofoam or whatever it was that made it float would suddenly decide that he just wasn’t worth the bother.  He was also surprised at how hard it was to propel himself through the water.  He had thought that if he could just get the fear of sinking out of his head, the rest would come naturally, but it didn’t.

The clothespin he had snatched from Aunt Estelle’s clothesline helped.

But he kept at it.  Every day he biked out to the lake for another try.  He found a new dedication he wished he’d had all those years on the road, staring at those numbers.  

He couldn’t help thinking about that textbook sometimes--Discovering Algebra, sitting in the bottom of the suitcase he’d never once bothered opening since he’d come “home.”  He’d almost heaved the textbook into the nearest dumpster after finals.  It was a bit dog-eared, but he still probably could have gotten twenty bucks for it at the campus bookstore during Book Buy-Back Day.  He’d wanted to get it out of his sight.  He’d wanted to take his frustration out on something.  

And he knew this would happen: the voice inside his head saying, You can study it over the summer.  Maybe it will make sense if you take it slowly.  Just keep at it.  

He almost wished his parents had split up when he was little.  That way he could blame it all on a broken home.  Don’t children of divorced couples score lower on standardized tests?  Weren’t his parents proto-divorced the whole time?  Didn’t he sense it as a small child, and didn’t that knowledge obliterate his ability to quantitatively analyze?  

He wanted to think of Discovering Algebra in the bottom of a dumpster.  Maybe someone would load in some dirty diapers, some banana peels.  That’s what he wanted to think about.  

It wasn’t too late.  He could take it downtown and find a dumpster behind McDonald’s. Or one behind a daycare center.

He opened the suitcase and pulled it out.  Take it for a stroll, a dumpster-discovery expedition.

But he cracked it open instead.  He pulled out some blank paper and a pencil and gave it another try.

*     *     *

Each time at the lake, he managed to flounder out a bit farther, splashing water high above his head--he was just barely aware enough of which way was up to observe this.  The crests of the waves were just over his head, always kept him unsure of where he was.  He swallowed so much water that he often ended up puking when he pulled himself into the shoals.  Reaching the shore felt miraculous each time--he got so disoriented that he feared he’d end up doing circles and rhombuses and figure-eights out in the middle of the lake until someone had to come looking for him and drag him back in.  And promptly commit him to a mental institution.  

Headline: Local Man Found in Disorderly State in the Middle of Lake Lucille.  Police Suspect Alcohol May Be Involved.

One Monday toward the end of summer, he dragged himself ashore, completely amazed that he had found it.  Something told him it had moved.  Everything felt wrong--his internal compass told him he was in the wrong place.  But then the rational part of his brain spoke up: Since when do you have an internal compass?  Who are you, Thor Heyerdahl?

He told his brain to shut up.  He lay face down in the pebbles, grasping bits of twigs and sand in his hands, waiting for the dizziness to pass so he could get up and find the Schwinn and go home.  He always left it by a big granite boulder, something that was easy to find.  But as he glanced around the boulder wasn’t there.  He must have drifted farther down the shore than usual.  He got up and walked around.  Something about the place wasn’t right--it was hillier, rockier.  

It looked a lot like the island.  

And those open-mouthed macaroni-chewers didn’t think he could do it.  He was about to gloat, but then he remembered that those little snots weren’t little snots anymore, they were college snots, probably acing trig and calculus.  He doubted they'd be impressed by his accomplishments with a life jacket and a clothespin.

He was going to turn around and go back, see if he could thrash his way back to shore, but then the thought occurred to him--haven’t most great voyages of exploration been accidental?  Didn’t Columbus think he was just off the coast of China?  Why not take a stroll through the island?--after all, it had fascinated him so much when he was a child.

Jason took off his life jacket, set the clothespin down on a piece of driftwood so he could find it later.  

A stand of Douglass-fir and white birches stood before him, and through their branches he could just discern two hillocks, with a sunflower-dappled glen between them.  He remembered staring at that little valley as a child, wondering what could be inside.  In the past few weeks, he had ignored the island altogether, paying no more attention to it than he did to the distant shore.  He had been focused exclusively on trying not to sink.   Avoiding death can cloud your imagination.  

Jason stretched his arms into the air.  He felt so at peace, so alive, so rested.  He listened to the call of herons along the shore, swallows in the trees, ravens and magpies squawking high overhead.  He breathed in the musky scent of the devil’s club, the spicy smell of the pines.  He reached down and plucked a fully blossomed fireweed and gazed at its purplish red head.
“I made it this far,” he said aloud.  He wasn’t embarrassed about talking to himself.  He knew he was alone.  “I made it this far by myself, all by my--”


Something whizzed by his head, so close it ruffled his hair.  It ricocheted off the trunk of a birch, skittered along the beach, and plopped into the water.

“Offa mah island!  I tole ya damn kids fer the last time, git the hell offa mah island!”

Jason threw himself onto the ground.  He glanced up and saw two cold gray eyes peering out from behind some alders.  He heard coughing and wheezing, the hacking up of some phlegm.  He heard a low metallic snick.  Jason knew next to nothing about guns, but he guessed that’s what reloading sounds like.  

“I’m a-countin’ to ten, boy.  An’ if you ain’t outta here . . .”

Jason didn’t wait for the rest of the sentence.  He bounded into the water, splashed into it face first.  He had scampered back onto the mainland before he realized he’d left the life vest behind.

© 2011 Jim

Author's Note

I'm open to any and all ideas. One of the main problems with the story is that it simply has too many threads going on at once, so I'd like some advice in how to pare it down a bit. Thanks.

My Review

Would you like to review this Story?
Login | Register

Featured Review

I wish I could me more helpful, but I agree with you that the story needs to be pared down some. I find that very hard to do myself. Once I have created a story it is like taking off an arm or leg to throw something out. With some refining I think you have a great story there. Your talent is beyond mine, but I would appreciate any advice you could give me.

Posted 9 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.


i think it a really great story

Posted 9 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

I wish I could me more helpful, but I agree with you that the story needs to be pared down some. I find that very hard to do myself. Once I have created a story it is like taking off an arm or leg to throw something out. With some refining I think you have a great story there. Your talent is beyond mine, but I would appreciate any advice you could give me.

Posted 9 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

This is wonderful. One of the most interesting stories on this site. I got totally pulled in. I love how you have described Aunt Estelle she seems like a interesting character. I think your very imaginative as I can easly visualise Jason in my head. He seems amusing to me.

Posted 9 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

You're right, there's too much going on for a short story. This feels more like a novel outline.

Posted 9 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


4 Reviews
Added on September 9, 2010
Last Updated on June 6, 2011
Tags: humor, coming of age



Caldwell, ID

"Language is the house of being." --Heidegger "Nothing bad ever happens to writers, just material." --Garrison Keillor "All true stories end in death." --Chick McGee I'm quite possibly t.. more..