from Hurt People
Cote Smith’s Hurt People is a finalist for the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. The following is an excerpt from the novel.
All we wanted was the pool. It waited in the center of our apartment complex, sleeping beneath a blue tarp. Sometimes the wind snuck under the tarp and puffed it up as it passed, giving the pool an irregular, visible pulse.
My brother and I walked by the pool every spring day after school. This was in 1988. He would grab the gate’s bars and stare. I touched the bars too. I wanted the pool because I wanted whatever my brother wanted, whether anyone said I could have it or not.
Now it was summer. School was out, the tarp was off, and the rest was up to our mother. We asked to swim every day after Memorial Day. Our mother hadn’t said yes yet. It’s too cold, she said. I’m too tired. You just ate.
We didn’t give up.
We pressed her in every way we could. My brother was a real good arguer. A teacher once told my mother he would make a good lawyer someday, and in a city where there were more prisons than restaurants, that could be a good thing.
We lived in Leavenworth, a city famous for its prisons. My brother and I could name all four. There was the county jail, where the local felons lived; the women’s prison, where all the bad wives and mothers went; and there was the juvenile correctional facility, home to the troubled young. But it was the federal penitentiary, stuck on a hill between Leavenworth and Fort Leavenworth, that loomed over everything. At school I’d seen pictures of palaces of kings and queens. This prison was bigger than all of them. Tall walls of concrete a mile long. Layers of barbed- wire fences. Guards perched in scattered sniper towers, in case anyone tried to escape. This, our mother told us, is where the country’s worst wind up. This is what happens. She liked to remind us that when someone did something wrong, they were always punished, one way or another. And in our case, she said, living where we did, the punishment was always close. Waiting.
“I’ll make you boys a deal,” my mother said one morning. The three of us were in the kitchen, sitting at our small square table. Sitting down, our mother towered over us. She was taller than most women, even minus her huge head of hair. But she was also very skinny, something she passed on to me. Random people told us we needed to eat.
My mother leaned over her plate of french-toast sticks, waved us in conspiratorially. “If the temperature hits seventy-five,” she said, “then we’ll all go to the pool.” She got up with her cup of coffee and left the kitchen, not waiting to field any questions. A moment later, we heard her bedroom door close, and then nothing, though I knew if I crept up and put my ear to the door, I would hear the soft hum of her rotating fan. She always slept with it on, a habit from the days with our dad.
It had been more than a year since our parents split, but we saw leftovers of our old life everywhere. A nasty washcloth, soggy under the sink, was actually our dad’s old tank top. A wineglass hidden in the cupboard at our dad’s duplex had the faint stain of our mother’s lips. If, when playing a game with my brother, I accused him of cheating, a tension stung the air.
Our dad was a cop for the city, and had been since before I was born. He was a popular policeman, so popular that it was hard to go do something quick like get gas or groceries without a stranger stopping him for small talk. They would ask about a missing person, news of the latest escape, or, with head down and eyes to the side, about the possible leniency of the law. But our dad never appeared put out, not to the people anyway, and they really liked him for this. His boss was to retire any time now, and in their heads the people had already ordained my dad their next chief.
Our mother never discussed our dad, other than to say, It’s Friday, go pack your bag. I guess she didn’t want us to know what she thought of him. There were times, though, when she was too tired or frustrated to filter her thoughts. One morning, for example, we were late to school because my brother spent too long getting ready in the bathroom. You’re ten, my mother said to him as she turned into the school parking lot. What do you care how you look? God, you’re just like your dad. Another time, while walking downtown with our mother, we saw a picture of our dad on the front page of the local newspaper. But when we asked our mother if we could buy the paper, cut out the picture, and give it to our dad, she sighed and told us no. Believe me, she said, he already knows.
It was normal for our mother to go back to sleep after breakfast. She did this when it was her turn to work the late shift at the golf course on post. She worked there six days a week and a lot of those days she worked nights too, manning the pro shop while Army men, reluctant to return to their tiny quarters, hit bucket after bucket at the driving range. If she wasn’t home by our assigned bedtime, my brother and I dragged our blankets to the living room to camp out for the night. We borrowed couch cushions and made a makeshift bed on the floor, next to the box fan. We tucked ourselves in and slept close.
We put our plates away and started dialing Time and Temperature. My brother said, “You can dial first because you are the youngest.” Time and Temp was the only number I was allowed to dial. I had it memorized. I grabbed the phone off the wall, stretched the cord to the floor, and dialed. The tone purred once before the robot lady answered. She said hello to me and that the time was too early, the temperature too low.
I waited three minutes and tried again. This was our plan. After ten disappointing dials, I pulled the phone out of the kitchen to see what my brother was doing. I caught him on the couch, looking at the naked ladies in our mother’s encyclopedias. The encyclopedias were an anniversary gift to my mother from my dad. Before they had separated, my mother often talked about going back to school to become a teacher. She was a big fan of history, she once told me, of learning from the mistakes of the past, including her own.
“You shouldn’t be doing that,” I said, though I had seen these naked ladies too. My brother had shown them to me.
“It was OK the other day,” he said, “when you were looking.” I hugged the phone against my ear with my shoulder, to look like an adult.
“You told me to come see. I didn’t know what it was going to be.”
“It’s a book. I’m learning,” he said. “It’s OK. I’m older.
I couldn’t think of a way to argue with him. My brother was older than me, by twenty-two months, a fact he was always throwing in my face. And it was a book, something about the human body. But the lady pictured, who was half skin, half insides, looked too much like our mother, making me uncomfortable. Her fully skinned half was model beautiful with blond hair. She had big blue eyes, twig legs like me.
I hung the phone up and went over to my brother, sitting with the book on his lap. I sat next to him so our knees touched, and looked at the lady. She wasn’t looking back. Her face was turned to the side, flushed with red. I could see one breast.
“Mom wouldn’t like this,” I said. My brother closed the book but didn’t move to put it away.
“If you don’t dial,” he said, “there’s no pool.”
My mother must have woken to the loud thumping. She came into the living room and saw my brother giving a cushion a flying elbow drop off the couch. I was in the kitchen with a beach towel tied around my neck like a cape. I was doing a running man dance. The phone was in my hand.
“Stop,” my mother said. “Have you lost your mind?” She had a hand in her big hair. I gave her the phone and let her hear the robot lady speak.
The time is twelve fifteen p.m. and the temperature is seventy-six degrees.
She held the phone away from her face and frowned.
“You guys, you’re going to hate me for this, but I’m just too tired,” she said. I stopped running in place. My brother stood on the couch with his shirt off.
“I don’t understand,” he said
“There’s nothing to understand. We need a new weatherwoman.” My brother jumped down. “It was only supposed to get up to seventy,” our mother said. She held the phone by its cord now. The receiver banged the floor. “And I have to work tonight.”
I took my towel off and sulked out of the kitchen. I moped past my brother and fell face-first into the couch.
“I’m sorry,” my mother said, “I’m just too tired.”
I held my breath and pretended I was doing a dead man’s float.
“I can take him,” my brother said, “if that’s what this is all about.” I pushed my face deeper into the crack between the couch cushions. My eyes were open but everything was black.
“You don’t have to come,” my brother said.
There was a pause. “Hmm,” my mother said. In the blackness I could almost hear her think. “How old are you?” she asked my brother.
“That’s right. And you’re going into what grade?”
“But I’m old for my grade. Plus I’m smarter than the other kids at school. When the teacher has to leave the room, I’m the one put in charge.”
“I don’t care about those kids,” my mother said. “This is you and my baby boy we’re talking about. Will you keep your eye on him?”
“Yes,” my brother said. “He’s my brother.” This statement made me smile. I lifted my face out of the cushions. My mother looked like she wanted to give in.
“Fine,” she finally said. “But in for dinner before it gets dark.” We nodded. I could hear the phone’s dead dial tone, beeping at us like a quiet alarm. Our mother picked up the receiver and pointed it at us. “You guys watch out for each other, OK?”
My brother put his arm around me.
“Strangers,” my mother said.
It was just us at the pool. This was not a rare thing, though when we first moved to the complex late last spring, our mother had promised we would make new friends. She said there was a field behind our building, a nice open space good for any game. But the day we arrived, all we saw were hints of kids. A turned-over tricycle, flat-tired in the grass. A frayed jump rope, hung from an unreachable branch. All signs of potential, long-gone friends. When we asked our mother, she said they must have moved to the new complex that opened up the town over. When we asked why we couldn’t stay in our old house, she told us to figure out a way to afford it. Plus, she said, sure that place was nice, but there was no pool.
As soon as we were through the gate I ran and jumped into the water like a crazy person. My brother took his time. He walked to the diving board and pulled out a list of aerial moves brainstormed over spring. They had names like the Jellybean (a balled-up boy rolled headfirst off the edge), the Secret Serviceman (a bullet-stopping sideways dive), and the Elántra (to be determined). The water was not warm, so the first half hour we spent getting our bodies used to it. The second we played monkey see, monkey do. My brother did moves he knew I could safely do in the shallow end of the pool.
“I like this,” I said.
“Yes,” my brother said, “me too.” He was on the diving board, deciding what move to do next. The sky behind him was blue, the same as the pool, and my brother smirked as an idea dawned. But when he was ready to jump, a siren sounded.
We looked up at the clear sky. Our city had only one siren, with only one sound, which it used for all its warnings.
“Is it a tornado?” I asked.
“Or a prison bust,” my brother said.
“I don’t think we should worry. I’ve heard it louder before.” I said OK and watched him cannonball off. I crossed my legs Indian style and went underwater, sinking myself to the bottom. There I pretended I was having tea with a stranger. I opened my eyes and saw my brother blurred underwater, still grasping his knees into a cannonball. When we popped up the siren was no longer sounding.
Regular pool activities resumed. My brother asked if I wanted to race. Most races began in the shallow end and required the racer to do something like hold one leg and hop to the border of the deep end and back. The loser received a playful dunk as reward. The winner got to gloat. My brother was doing a victory underwater handstand when a cop ran by.
“A policeman ran by,” I said to him when he popped up. He pinched his nose and shot out the water.
“Just now. When you were underwater.”
“Was it Tony?” Tony was the cop who would sometimes drive by our apartment, give us knockoff baseball cards. I liked to think that my dad sent him, to check on us when he couldn’t.
“I couldn’t tell,” I said. “He was moving too fast. What does it mean?”
My brother spun in the pool, looking around, but there was nothing to see. It was like nothing had happened. “I guess it means we’re safe.”
We were having so much fun that I wanted to believe him. For caution, we agreed that we would go in ten minutes early. This would make our mother proud. She would realize that my brother and I were responsible, that we were capable of good judgment. We could take ourselves to the pool every day if we wanted, not have to tag along with her to work. We could spend our summer like this.
We went back to racing. I lost a bunch and took in a lot of water when dunked. I had to get out and pee.
“Don’t go inside,” my brother said.
“I won’t.” We both knew if we went inside our mother might see us shivering in our soaked trunks and change her mind.
“Go behind the shed,” my brother said.
The shed was far from the pool, next to the woods. Our complex was at the edge of the city and was bordered by woods on three sides. I always thought of the woods as the deep end of the nonpool world and avoided going into them. My brother was the one who retrieved an overthrown ball, a misbehaving boomerang.
I stepped to the trees and pulled down the front of my trunks. My pee was the clear color of our mother’s homemade lemonade.
I tiptoed my way back to the sidewalk to avoid the grass. I had to watch my feet to do this. When I looked up, I saw a man talking to my brother at the pool. At first I thought it was Rick, an ex- con my mother worked with at the golf course on post. Rick was the meanest person I knew. He always made fun of my brother and me, and when he took us on long rides in his special golf cart, whose engine he had messed with to make the cart go faster, Rick would do this thing where he would pinch our entire thigh with his thumb and pointer finger. We called it the Rick Pinch. We never knew when it was coming and could never be at ease.
But the man was not Rick. This man had a smoother, whiter face. He probably didn’t smell of gasoline and grass like Rick always did. The man sat on the edge of the shallow end with his jeans rolled up. His legs were hairy and his toes skimmed the water’s surface like mosquitoes. I didn’t want to walk very fast to this man and my brother, but the cement was hot. I sat by my brother and cooled my feet in the pool.
“This is Chris,” my brother said.
“Hey, what’s up, little man?” Chris said.
“Hi,” I said. I kept my head down, focused on my feet. I wished my brother would tell this man to go to the deep end. Sorry, he could say, we’re using this end for racing. Just us two.
“Man,” Chris said, “this sure is the place to be. You guys have it made, don’t you think?” My brother agreed, and Chris started talking about how much he missed the pool. How it was good to be back and why did he ever leave this in the first place? My brother smiled and said he didn’t know. It was pretty great. I didn’t want to deal with this, so I went underwater. When I opened my eyes I saw my brother’s legs next to Chris’s legs. Chris had a tattoo on his left ankle. Some symbol or shape. I couldn’t tell what it was. My lungs started to burn, so I floated to the top.
“What does your tattoo mean?” I said. Chris and my brother turned to me. My brother seemed mad that I’d interrupted. He always said I asked too many dumb questions.
“Hey, he talks,” Chris said.
“What does it mean?” I said. Chris pulled the leg out of the pool and stared at it like it was a new fake limb.
“Oh, that? That’s a secret only my friends know. I already told my man here, didn’t I?”
“He told me part of it,” my brother said. “He wouldn’t tell the rest.”
“I want to know,” I said. “Tell me.”
“Can’t,” Chris said. “Not unless we’re friends. What do you say, little man? Want to be my friend?” I nodded instantly. I did not like the idea of being left out of a secret kept by my brother.
“Good,” Chris said, “but let’s hear you say it, so the whole world can witness. Go ahead, say you’re my friend.” I looked at my brother, who shrugged one shoulder as if to say hey, why not. “Well, little man?”
“Yes,” I said, “I am your friend.”
Chris clapped his hand. “Nice,” he said. Then he twisted his neck and glanced around.
“Are you looking for spies?” I said. I also had a problem where I said the first thing I thought. My brother looked at me like I was a new breed of idiot.
“Yes!” Chris said in a loud whisper. “We don’t want this getting out, do we?” I shook my head. “OK,” Chris said. He put his finger on the symbol, parting the wet hairs around it. His nail looked chewed on, dark with dirt underneath. “Well, the first thing you need to know is that it’s Chinese.”
There was a disappointing pause. A pool pump clicked on. “That’s all he told me,” my brother said, “and I pretty much already guessed that.”
“Hey, guys,” Chris said. “This thing hurt. It’s a part of my body. I’m not going to give it away for free.” I began to float on my back. Water found my ears, wooshed sounds around. I knew as much as my brother and no longer cared what the rest of the symbol meant.
“We don’t have any money,” my brother said.
Chris laughed. “I don’t want your money. I have my own means.” I swam to the side, hung off the shallow ladder. Chris wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Man, is it supposed to be this hot?”
“It was only supposed to be seventy,” I said.
“Is that right?” Chris said. “Hmm. You know, my mother used to give us something special on days like these. You know those popsicles that come in plastic strips? You ever have anything like that?”
“Yes,” my brother said, “we have those.”
“You do?” Chris said. “Let’s do this, then. How about one of you gets us some treats, and when you get back, we’ll all share. You share the popsicles, I’ll share my secret.”
My brother turned to me with his thinking face on. “We’ll both go,” he said, meaning me and him.
Chris raised his hands like he was being held up. “No, no, no. That won’t work. If both of you leave, I’ll get lonely. I need someone to keep me company. Plus, I don’t live here. I’m not allowed at this pool by myself.”
My brother’s thinking face grew more serious; lines showed up on his forehead. “He’ll go,” my brother said. “I’ll stay with you.”
“Why can’t we both go?” I said to him.
“It’ll be quicker this way,” my brother said. “You’re small and fast. I’ll be right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Fine,” I said.
“And don’t wake Mom.”
“I know,” I said, standing up. Chris’s sigh changed into a smile. The sun beamed on his face, coloring his teeth yellow.
“Hey, little man,” Chris said. “Make mine a red.”
Inside our apartment, my feet were quiet on the carpet. I got down and crawled into the kitchen, like an Army man. I stood up at the fridge and hoped my mother wouldn’t hear when I opened the freezer and ripped three popsicle strips out of the box. When I stepped out of the kitchen, I saw her sleeping silently on the couch. She was still in her robe, which hung loose off her chest and shoulder. I took a few steps to see if she had her swimming suit on, if she had changed her mind and planned to keep her promise. I couldn’t tell until I was at the arm of the couch. From the side, I got a good angle into her robe. I saw the curves of her body. She had nothing on underneath.
By the time I got back to the pool, my body was dry and cold, and my palm was nearly numb from the popsicles. My brother opened his blue one with his fingers; Chris and I ripped ours with our teeth. We did not talk while we ate. We kept the plastic strips in our mouths and pushed the frozen chunks up from the bottom like toothpaste. For the first time, I was able to stare at Chris. His hair was a lighter version of my dad’s. It was dirty blond and long enough that he had to brush it off his forehead. His body was thin and pale, like his face, but not so skinny that his ribs showed, like mine did. He scratched the trail of hair on his stomach, and I wondered if his hands were rough or not.
When all the ice chunks were gone, we drank the melted stuff left behind. I could feel the sugar on my tongue.
“Will you tell us about the tattoo now?” my brother said. Chris was leaning back in the pool chair. He sat up after a few seconds, his face scrunched up in pain. He put two fingers to his forehead, between his eyebrows.
“Ow,” Chris said. “Ow, ow, ow.”
“What’s wrong?” my brother said.
“It hurts.” Chris stood up and started stumbling around. “Hurts so bad.”
“What does? Are you OK?”
Chris didn’t answer. He dropped his popsicle wrapper and a small breeze took it. Now he had both hands on his head. He pulled his hair and yelled, “Ah! I got the brain pain!”
“What do we do?” my brother said.
Chris yelled again in response. His mouth stayed open in pain, showing all the fake red inside, outlining and tinting his teeth. Then, suddenly, he stopped moaning and spit a red pool. My brother and I looked at each other, confused.
“OK,” Chris said, “it’s passed. The pain has passed.” He was smiling again. It was all an act.
My brother sat back down. “The tattoo,” he said. He looked at Chris like he looked at me when we were running someplace and he had to stop and wait for me to catch up. Chris stood up and shook his head like a wet dog.
“Patience, my man. It’s all about patience.”
“But he got you a popsicle,” my brother said, pointing to me.
“Yes, he did. But what have you ever done for me?” Chris looked away from both of us and into the woods. My brother didn’t respond. I thought he was thinking of an argument. I knew he had an amazing one in him somewhere. It would be something Chris wouldn’t have an answer for. Chris would open his mouth to say something back, but his brain wouldn’t be able to help. He would apologize and have to tell us what we wanted to know. We would hear what the tattoo meant, say big deal, and return to our mother, victorious.
“You guys ever heard of the Gainer?” Chris said.
My brother looked confused. “Is that your tattoo?”
“No, this is something else.” Chris stepped toward us. “This is my secret pool move.” He lowered his voice and looked at each of us seriously. “You want to see it?” My brother glanced at his list of moves, pinned down by a pool chair, the names written in big bubble letters.
“Trust me, this isn’t on your little list,” Chris said. “Do you want to see it or not?”
“I guess,” my brother said.
“You guess. Well, OK, then get ready.” Chris ran around the pool and jumped on the diving board. He lifted both of his hands to the sky and yelled, “For the Gainer!”
My brother and I stayed close to each other. The sun shone on Chris, who with his arms raised looked like one of our dad’s old softball trophies, now boxed away in the dark part of his basement. We watched Chris unbutton his fly and drop his jeans. It was the first time I had seen boxer shorts in person. They were as white as his body, and I felt like I should look away, but I didn’t. I was eager to see the move, to be there when the secret was revealed.
Chris stepped to the edge of the board and rubbed his hands together. A V of birds glided the sky, calling out to one another. Chris took a step back and raised his arms like he was holding a rifle. He mock- shot each bird, one after another, pow! bursting from his lips.
“Don’t want them telling their little bird buddies, do we?” he said, and laughed. He stepped to the edge again. “OK,” he said, and took a deep breath. “Here we go.”
I grabbed my brother’s arm, and we watched as Chris bounced once on the board and sprang into the air in a motion we had never seen before. He jumped forward but did a backflip, his body somehow upright as he entered the water. There was a big splash. When it died my brother and I looked at each other like what was that. I wanted to say that that was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.
A large fly drummed my ear as we stood by the shallow end, waiting for Chris to pop up. After a few seconds, we started to worry. Maybe that super move had taken everything Chris had. Maybe he was a goner.
My brother fast walked to the deep end. He got up on the diving board and peered into the water below. The trees shook. My brother looked at me like he was about to do something he didn’t want to do.
“Don’t,” I said.
“He needs help,” my brother said, and did a few baby bounces on the board.
“Please don’t.” I had to pee again, even though I just went.
“I’ll be right back.” He put his arms out to the side, ready to dive. But as he took the final step to the board’s edge, Chris’s head popped up. He shot water from his mouth like a fountain and turned to my brother.
“You ready to try it?” he said, as if nothing had happened. He swam to the side and got out of the pool, his soaked shorts nearly see-through.
“I can’t do that,” my brother said.
“Sure you can. You can do anything, my man, because you’ve got me for a teacher.”
“What about the tattoo?”
“Forget the tattoo. This is bigger than that. You get this down, nobody will mess with you. Can’t you see that?” My brother appeared unconvinced. “Fine,” Chris said. “Come here.” My brother walked away from me and stood next to Chris, who put his hand on my brother’s shoulder and whispered something into his ear. I watched my brother’s face change, saw him smile. Chris pulled away and my brother nodded. If a stranger were to drive by, they might think the two were father and son.
“Now,” Chris said, “are you ready to try it?” Chris patted him on the butt. “OK, then get on up there.”
My brother hopped on the board. I jumped into the shallow end, to get a better view, and because I was cold and felt far away.
“You’re not going to master it in one day,” Chris said, “but that’s OK. We got all the time in the world, my man. None of us are going anywhere.”
Our mother never came to the pool. The rest of that day my brother worked on learning the Gainer. Well, Chris made him work on the front dive first. He said my brother had to crawl before he could walk, which meant he had to dive before he could flip. I watched from the border of the shallow and the deep, and throughout the day, stepped closer and closer to where my toes could no longer touch.
On our way home, my brother and I walked side by side. My towel was wrapped around me like a skirt. My brother’s hung on his shoulders like he was a prizefighter.
“Did he tell you what the tattoo meant?” I said.
“Will you tell me?”
“Did he tell you not to tell me?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Tell me.” I had stopped but my brother kept walking. He was almost at our building’s pea-green door.
“OK,” he said. “But you can’t tell Mom.”
“Or Dad. Not about Chris, either. That’s part of it.”
“And you have to make me a sandwich.”
“OK.” My brother waved me to the door. He cupped my ear and whispered what the tattoo meant, but I didn’t know what that word was. I asked him to explain. He stood up straighter. He said, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
This excerpt is from Hurt People by Cote Smith, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016).