Friday, January 31, 2014

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7 to 5- Guest Author Samantha Ten Eyck

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It was the summer of 1991 on South Padre Island.  It was the summer our dad yelled at the naked spring breakers jumping on the trampoline in our backyard. It was the summer of pet possums and armadillos. It was the summer we went to the island’s only Baptist church, where Bruce, a man who had a permanently red, sweaty face and ever-pregnant wife, rambled beautifully about salvation and made me see the devil in everything. Made it so I couldn’t sleep at night without wondering if Satan’s cold hands were wrapped around my polluted soul.
It was also the summer our parents went to work from 7 to 5. Most days they left us 5 dollars to use economically. Most days, and by most days I mean everyday, my older brother and sister split it between themselves at the Circle K gas station or Whataburger, and left me with a handful of the complimentary half-and-half containers meant to lighten the hot coffee few islanders consumed. I had meals sometimes, but most of my diet consisted of cream shots, trays of ice, and pieces of Wonder Bread that I’d wad up in my hands until they resembled what I imagined dough would look like, then I’d “bake” the wads in the sun on paper plates until they were “done” and ready to eat – salty and sour from the sweat of my tan little hands. 

During the first few weeks that our parents drove over the bridge in their beat up cars and light hearts, we were elated with our newfound freedom. But soon we had found each stray coin in the house. Soon we found that there could be such a thing as too much MTV. We ventured out.
We started battles with neighborhood kids. We made weapons in my dad’s garage. Bats with nails hammered into them, chains, pipes to fill with sand and fling into rival eyes – stuff that would get kids pegged as threats to society these days. We made booby traps in the sand dunes. We fought hard. We won.
I helped my brother dig deep holes in the sand and gather cement blocks and palm fronds to make forts while my sister learned Sir-Mix-a-Lot dances. We ate Dorritos and drank Mountain Dew and jumped on the trampoline until we puked. We slept in sand forts and woke up to see coyotes searching the field ahead in the early morning fog. We headed towards the north of the island and watched bungee jumpers shoot their bodies through time and space.
Sometimes I went with my brother to the police station, where he and his friends played against the cops. I’d wander off the court to where they put stray animals – mostly kittens and dogs with tails between their legs. I stroked these lost animals to the reassuring beat of the basketball thumping on dry concrete. 

We complained of our aimlessness to our parents. We got passes to the island’s waterpark, which was named Jeremiah’s after that song “Joy to the World.” The slides were not what you’d imagine. Back then they looked like bleached-blue tunnels of plaster of Paris. They felt like homemade oatmeal cookies with a hard coat of concrete and paint. We slid down the six different routes in all combinations imaginable. We selected the fastest mats. We raced each other down. We sat two to a mat. We raced other park-goers. We doubled or tripled up mats. We went mat-less. I swallowed gallons of hot, recirculated water. I went to the snack bar and watched people eat food I had no money for. My brother used my cute five-year-old disposition to win us beverages from his older girlfriends. “I’m so thirsty,” I’d say, head down. “I wish I had a big Cherry Coke.” And a Cherry Coke would appear for us to fight over, my sister joining us from where she sat gossiping with friends, decorating Trapper Keepers and dreaming of a new pair of Girbaud jeans.
When we exhausted the slides and the decks, we naturally ventured underneath the structure. Most buildings on the island were built up on big wooden stilts. In this case, Jeremiah’s was like a big solid deck, with siding wrapping all the way around it and creating a cool, damp enclosure 3 to 5 feet high, depending on the sand drifts. We found a hole in the siding and all three of us crawled in. We navigated our way through the uncharacteristically cold sand, which felt wet and strange on our hot limbs. 
I saw something sparkling. It was a quarter. I dug my hand in the sand. More quarters.
“Uh. Josh, Suzie?”
I flashed them a palm of sandy quarters. Then, we began to dig and dust the area like archaeologists. At home, we’d already tipped over the washer and dryer in search of loot, so at the end of the summer this was a godsend. Our hands could no longer hold all of our quarters, so I folded up my shirt and my siblings clinked them in while the cotton stretched.
We thought the better of it and surfaced to get plastic cups. My brother paused at the two arcade games upstairs. We all looked at each other. The quarters fell through the cracks in the wood from this very spot, where drunk spring breakers, tourists, or anyone with wet fingers struggled to get the quarters in. This meant that the loot would never end. Sure, it would slow down, but we’d have a constant collection during the months the park remained open.        
At the end of the day, we had three jumbo plastic cups filled with coins of the 25 cent variety. We made private calculations about the amount of Slurpees, Sour Powers, and Fritos this kind of money could buy. Then we crawled out into the setting sun, where the owner of the park waited for us, his graying ponytail flapping in the wind like the wings of a burnt out angel. He was a pretty nice guy with a lot of extra money who thought he might as well open a water park. He had the look of someone who retired early – all neon shorts and tanned limbs popping out of his clothing holes like burnt yams. 
“Does that belong to you?”
We looked down at our loot.
“You can’t keep it, you know.”

We had no argument. We handed it over without a fight. He patched up the hole in the siding and we didn’t go below again. The season was almost over, anyway, and soon we’d find ourselves on the side staircase of our house, the three of us pausing for whatever reason before we headed towards the bus stop. My sister tried to adjust my socks in some kind of cool 90s way and I kicked at her face because I have a thing about socks. My brother was looking out past the hairy palm tree, towards the ocean. He looked at me, then at Suzie.
“I wonder what Sammy will be like in 10 years.”
21 years later I look down at my hands. The same hands that re-shaped Wonder Bread, the same hands that stroked stray kittens, peeled back the cover of mini half-and-halfs, threw stale bread to seagulls, collected loot, fastened weapons. They are familiar and foreign. They’ve plucked a banjo, cracked a whip, served drinks, swiped subway cards, soaked tears. They’ve stroked the skin of lovers, they’ve held on to hands in the half-light, they’ve written Hanzi after Hanzi. They are still searching. They are my mother’s hands.

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Samantha Ten Eyck has an MFA in poetry. She is currently teaching English, learning Chinese, and having a human experience in Beijing, China.