Paula and Edith’s funeral was Beverly’s second that year. They were the ugly sisters who’d drowned in the irrigation ditch. Her whole sixth grade class had been invited, which was probably the only reason anybody came at all. Nobody liked them. Not even the other kids’ mothers, because although Paula and Edith were ugly, their mother was pretty and divorced. They’d moved to town a couple of months before school let out for the summer. Both girls were in the same grade because Judith had flunked two grades and Edna had flunked one. It was quickly decided that they had cooties, so they only had each other to play with.
Beverly wasn’t any sadder at this funeral than she had been at her grandmother’s. Impatiently, she waited for the preacher to stop talking so she could look inside their identical white coffins. She wanted to see what was missing from their faces. What had been missing from her grandmother’s face was the mean. After inspecting Paula and Edith’s faces, she decided what was missing was the sad. She’d sometimes wanted to talk to them to see what it was from, but knew if she did, she would get their cooties, too, and she already had enough of her own. Hers were a different kind because she wasn’t ugly and had never flunked, but nobody would tell her what they were from. She was going to miss Paula and Edith because they had caused everyone to forget about hers for a while.
Paula and Edith had never looked so good in real life. Make-up had made their pimples disappear and stopping living had relieved them of their frenzied expressions. Afterwards, at the cemetery, their mother got drunk and acted like a hostess to everybody.. She flitted from person to person with a glass in her hand, thanking them for coming and laughing from her nerves. Her pretty, alive daughter, Billie, followed her everywhere with her lips in a constant smile.
Beverly wrote in the flowered notebook that she carried everywhere since she had read a book called Harriet the Spy. “Their mother looks like she’s happy they’re dead”. She wanted to be just like Harriet who, like her, was in the sixth grade. Unlike Harriet, she didn’t have a nanny. Instead, she had Dolly, the twenty-four year old retarded woman who served as their live-in baby-sitter, and with whom she had to share a room. Dolly wore lots of make-up and looked like a fat, doughy clown in her bikini. Beverly didn’t like wearing make-up, especially when her father told her to put it on and sing “Harper Valley PTA” for his friends. She only liked to sing out the window of the school bus where the sound would be carried away with the wind and nobody clapped and spilled whiskey.
Paula and Edith were famous for at least a week after their deaths. Everybody talked about them because they were in the newspaper. The newspaper said they had dropped a beloved toy in the water and had gone in after it. Although the toy was described in detail, Beverly did not believe this for one minute. She was sure they had made a pact to hold hands and jump in together so their mother could be a happy hostess and they wouldn’t get teased at school anymore. With them gone, it would only be Billie, who didn’t have frizzy hair and bowed legs like Edith or a wide nose and big lips like Paula, and who nobody suspected of being half-black even though their skin was pasty-white. Beverly herself had never seen an actual black person because her father had moved them to this town where there weren’t any on purpose. He had said at the cemetery that it was a fucking shame that Paula and Edith’s mother was probably a nigger-lover because she was a damn good-looking woman.
Beverly’s mother turned red and said “Shhh.”
The irrigation ditch was off-limits for swimming after that, but kids still played there. Some kids played there more than before. Beverly’s brother John started the game because he was fearless. He couldn’t sit still in class. He could get beat longer than anybody and cry fake tears and go away laughing behind their father’s back. When the rumble sounded the pump being turned on, the other kids got out of the water, but John yelled “I’m going across!” and kicked off for the other side. Beverly watched as he struggled in the center for a minute before breaking free of its force. He yelled across to her. “It was easy! Bet you’re too chicken to try it.”
She knew if she didn’t, he’d think that he could start beating her up pretty soon, which was true. Despite their two-year age difference, she’d stopped growing that year and he’d just kept on. So she did it. It was not easy. Everybody knew John was a big fat liar. When she reached the other side, her muscles aching, her youngest brother Tommy was there waiting for her.
“Mom says you have to come home and do work now”, he said.
John said “Bet I can swim across more times than you”, and set off for the other side again.
Tommy said “I’m telling mom if you go again. You’re not sposed to be playing here. Mom said.”
She knew he wouldn’t tell if she asked nicely. He insisted on being asked, and always told if he wasn’t. They watched as John paddled in the center for what seemed like a long time and then finally hauled himself up onto the slanted concrete on the other side. He pretended he wasn’t even tired and yelled “Your turn, chicken”.
Another boy who’d been watching said “I’ll try it” and slipped into the water. Beverly was glad for the extra time because her muscles still ached. The other boy was stuck there even longer than John had been and Beverly was glad that she had to go home because John would want to keep doing it until she said uncle.
To Tommy, she said “Just one more time, I promise, then we’ll go home”. She kicked off hard from the side, hoping it would give her enough momentum to carry her past the center. It didn’t, and she felt herself being pulled down even though she was kicking as hard as she could. She took a deep breath as her head went underwater. Now, instead of swimming towards the side, she had to swim several feet up towards the surface. Confident that she would have plenty of time because the ditch was not that deep, she closed her eyes and kicked for several moments before opening her eyes to see how far she had come. She hadn’t come any closer to the surface at all.
Looking up, she was dazzled by the illumination of countless golden flakes of mica that glittered and swirled in the brilliant sunlight through the water that surrounded her. Exhausted, she went still and surrendered to her unrehearsed immersion into this quiet world of beauty and warmth. As she did, her limp body was spun around by the force of the suction and thrown free of the center towards the side she had started from. Her body told her it would be a fine thing to breathe, right here, right now, that she could stay and look yet a while longer if only she would. She forgot about drowning and that drowning was supposed to be a bad thing.
Hearing a muffled noise above her, she looked up to locate its source. Tommy’s face was contorted in a scream. He lay on the side of the ditch on his stomach with his hand in the water reaching toward her. He looked so afraid that she began swimming upward to comfort him and ask him why he was crying. As she reached for his hand, he grasped her wrist and pulled until her head broke the surface. She gulped some air. He pulled her towards the side with his skinny arms. His tiny muscles were taut and he grunted through sobs as he struggled until her top half lay on the warm concrete side.
John, watching from the other side, yelled “Look at the little cry-baby. Waaaaa! Waaa!”. He snickered and looked around to see if the other boys were watching him.
Tommy’s eyes bulged in his purple face as he screamed “You shut up, you fucker! You don’t even care if she dies!”.
John did not shut up. He said “Ooooh, I’m telling mom you said fucker”, turned around and shook his butt. Beverly lay on the concrete and cried because she knew that whatever it was that Tommy needed her to stay alive so bad for, she wouldn’t be able to do it. She was already way too tired.