I look up from my watch and hock a wad of phlegm into the mulch trying to seem more ticked off than I am because we’d been standing in line for forty five endless minutes. I could have watched half a movie in this time. I keep thinking about and that thought makes me irritable. So does the heat. It’s this muggy, miserable heat. You know what I mean. You can feel the heat in the back of your throat when you inhale, like this invisible hand is trying to force a hot wad of cotton down to your stomach. All we can do is shuffle forward incrementally and watch for girls walking back from the waterpark.
A few brunettes with bronzing skin and strands of damp, highlighted hair slicked back expose their tan lines as they adjust their bikini bottoms when they pass by. We nudge each other and grin, ignoring the younger kids jacking around a few groups ahead of us in line. Those runts are oblivious to the walking candy aisle passing on their starboard side. Paunchy and me have a few years on them and our interests in collecting trading cards have dropped lower than our voices. It’s the feminine aesthetic we’re concerned for, now. I stand there and figure that watching waterpark beauties beats missing a flick in the coolness of the movie house any day, even if we only get to glimpse them for less than a minute.
“Hey man, if we’re lucky the next bunch to flip-flop on by will think it’s a good idea to let Hellion’s Wrath give them a good air-drying,” I say to Paunchy without redirecting my gaze from where the brunettes have disappeared behind a burger hut. “They’ll zig and they’ll zag up through the line and if the timing’s just right we’ll be standing directly across from them. Close enough to smell them. That is, if the chlorine hasn’t done away with whatever sweet nectar scents they sprayed on before they left the house.”
Paunchy’s face contorts in this goofy-looking grin and he convulses out a chuckle. “What would you even say to them?”
I turn back around and close the gap between us and the couple that’s been necking in front of us for the past half an hour. Necking in the heat must be a drag. The guy must be having a hard time faking that he’s enjoying himself with his girl. His smile is almost as dumb as Paunchy’s. I know I would be having a hell of a time smiling that much while someone’s hanging all over me and kissing on me for everyone to see. Especially in this heat. Paunch elbows my ribs and gives me a look and I snap out of it.
“Of course I’d talk to them,” I hiss.
“About what, exactly?”
Judging by his tone, I take it he’s in disbelief that I possess a set of balls hefty enough to small talk a group of girls I’d likely never see again. Before I get too insulted about it, I remind myself that his lankiness has never given him an advantage in the girls department and maybe he’s just seeking a little education from his cousin. It’s not like I know squat about them either, but I ain’t about to let on that I’m only incrementally less clueless about the subject than he is. I feign a cucumber’s coolness and begin to explain.
“Listen, Paunch, when it comes to talking to girls, it can’t be rehearsed. You gotta sling something off the cuff. Something about the heat, like. Or maybe I’ll make up a baloney story about how a coaster in Jersey derailed and stranded its passengers for four excruciating hours. That’ll get them all shaken up and give us an in on playing the hero.” Those actually don’t sound like such bad ideas.
Paunchy snorts at my answer. We hear shrieks from out by the carousel and a gaggle of girls trounce into sight, the balls of their bare feet slapping against the basking cement. We hold our breath, but they don’t turn into the line. One of them has strawberry hair and freckles on her shoulders. She glances over toward us and a smile cracks in the corners of her mouth when her eyes find mine. Automatically, half of my face tightens up before a doofy grin peels across my face, answering her expression. In a memory-like extension of time, she turns and keeps with the others.
Once I snap out of my trance with Strawberry Jam and her passing group of waterpark babes, I notice the little gremlins a few groups up in line from us seem to be up to something foul. They’ve been whispering to each other and pointing at Paunchy, sneering and doubling over each time one cupped hand comes down from another’s ear. Seems they’re riffing insults off each other, coming up with some real side-splitters. For a just a millisecond of a moment, I wish I was in their circle. They seem to be having quite the time up there. They’re also just a little bit closer to getting on the ride. I am certain of what it is they’re goofing about. Ever since his last growth spurt, it’s been kind of trying on the nerves to hang around with old Paunchy. He’s probably the gangliest kid you’ve ever seen.
Paunchy looks like a cord of silly putty after you hold the ends between your thumb and index finger on each hand and jump rope it around for a few seconds. He’s a string bean. His head and shoulders stick way out above a crowd, which is all good when you’re trying to find him at the mall or something, but I found out from his sister Hannah that the bums he goes to school with down south got to calling him Periscope Paunchy on account of his extreme height. I have to give it to them, it’s actually a pretty clever name. So he gets a lot of sideways looks these days, and by extension, so do I. Right when I realize how those little grommets have made him their punch line, it bugs like they’re talking about me. It’s them I’m miffed at, but immediately I stare daggers at Paunch. Kid’s my cousin and all, basically the same age as me, but shoot, he’d been a wet blanket on the blazing fire that was supposed to be the raddest summer of my life.
My Uncle Marty, who makes a living cutting tree branches away from power lines, got transferred for a big job in the tree-infested state of Washington back in May. For some reason my saint of a mother found it to be her duty to extend an invitation for her little sister to stay with us for the summer, which is hopefully all the longer the job is going to have my uncle tied up on the West Coast. Once the school year ended in Whatevercrumbytowntheylivein, Georgia, Aunt Kenzie and her sorry tush and the sorry tushes of cousin Paunchy and his little sister, the crabbiest apple in the bushel, Hannah, moved in with Ma and me. This was supposed to be the Summer of Decision. I just turned 15. I have a to-do list, you know? Do morning calisthenics. Run two-miles each afternoon. Lifeguard at the Y. Make out with a girl under the fireworks on the Fourth. Get serious about saving for a car. Make out with a different girl under the fireworks on Labor Day Weekend. These were crucial times in a boy’s social, physical, and psychological development and playing babysitter to the tallest adolescent on the East Coast was not part of the plan. Plus, my mom worked nights and weekends, which meant an open house all summer long. I should have been establishing my street cred for having the best garage to hang at in town. By mid-June though, Aunt Kenzie and Hannah, who were apparently bigger homebodies than antique furniture, had established themselves as a barrier on anything remotely illicit and therefore fun that might happen in that garage. Or the basement. Or my bedroom. A season pass to Twin Rivers Park, in my mother’s eye, seemed to make a fair trade-off for missing out on my invaluable independence. Suffice it to say, it did not.
When we finally get to the stairs that lead up to the loading platform of Hellion’s Wrath, Paunchy makes this miserable situation about twelve times worth. Since his abnormal height and lankiness have only been a part of him for a few months, he’s still adapting. One of his clown feet gets caught on the edge of the third step and he starts to lose balance and fall. I swear he would have lost a tooth on the handrail had I not jolted to grab his arm and swing him around so he landed on his butt. Boy, did that cause an uproar from the gremlins who were now staring down from the upper platform. One of them happened to be wearing a tee shirt with this iconic thin, tall, green claymation character from the ‘50s on it and they kept pointing at the shirt and then at Paunchy and making noises in this dopey voice. They’re all howling like jackals while one of them did his best to imitate one of those blow-up nylon stick figures with the air vent underneath it you see outside car dealerships. He nails the performance, blowing wind on the fire that was my roaring aggravation. Little bastards.
“God, I can’t wait to get this ride over with,” I tell Paunchy as I pull him up. He looks away from me. He’s got to know the extra attention he’s brought to the two of us has been working its way under my skin. I wonder what he thought his summer was going to look like.
We finally get up to the entrance of the ride. This guy who’s supposedly working there perks up from where he’s perched talking to some bikini-topped honey in short shorts when he sees Paunchy and me shuffle into one of the chutes that aligns you to an assigned row on the car. He nods this chocolate pudding-eating grin to the girl and grabs a piece of PVC pipe that’s got florescent yellow tape all up it in a spiral with this one thick band wrapped about six inches from the top of the stick. I notice this goon walking over, but Paunchy is clueless until he’s standing next to us and tapping him on his shoulder, planting his pipe on the ground next to us. Paunchy looks down about six inches to the piece of tape that denote the “you’re too freakishly tall to safely ride Hellion’s Wrath, but please enjoy your stay at Twin Rivers Park” mark and gives the guy a curious look.
Before Paunch can ask what the matter is, the guy cocks his head and says, “In about a minute and a half, the blue car is going to pull up to this very spot, Slim. You’re going to step onto the car, and then you’re going to take another step to the opposite platform and be on your way. Park safety rules deem your height to be a threat not only to your life, but to the lives of the other would-be riders experiencing the ride with you. On behalf of the park, I need to ask you to exit the platform.” His tone is cockier than a rooster farm.
While Paunchy went kind of rubbery in his knees as if to shrink himself to under the maximum height mark, I puffed my chest up and blurted out, “Okay, good one, buddy, ha-ha. You make me stand an hour and a half in this sack-sweating heat and just as I’m about to get my chance for a quick thrill, you think you’re going to tell me I’m not allowed to spent 93 seconds on this ride? Yes, I timed it. All because my cousin here is a few inches too tall?”
The PVC guy gives me a look like I’m a complete idiot. “You can ride,” he says, pointing the measuring stick at me as if he’s trying to knight me. “He cannot,” he grunts, jabbing the pipe at Paunchy’s chest. “He is a height that is too tall and he should have taken notice to that fact before getting in line.”
Paunchy looks down at me. I can tell like he’d rather be anywhere than in this moment. Just then the blue car pulls up and the runts that were ahead of us in line wipe the moisture out of their eyes as it comes to a complete stop and the lap-bars release. They shuffle out of the car to the left hand side of the platform and as they congregate, they notice me and Paunchy standing with the PVC guy. As they realize the predicament, they begin to giggle.
“I’ll just meet you at the bathrooms, Pete,” Paunchy tells me as he moved toward the car. “Tell me how it is.”
As he awkwardly steps into the car, I spit a wad of phlegm right between the PVC guy’s feet and follow after my cousin. I put a hand on his back and in a voice only he can hear tell him, “Forget the ride, man. Let’s see if we can make one of these little gremlins shit themselves. Follow my lead, alright?” He turns his head a quarter back to me, enough that I can see he’s wearing a grin of affirmation. When the both of us step off the car, forfeiting the shrill pleasure of Hellion’s Wrath, the runts join in a silent union, glance sharply at each other, and tear down the exit ramp. In a few short seconds, as we begin our chase, I realize something most people probably don’t think of when they look at Periscope Paunchy.
The kid is fast.