Carter Schwonke



THE MUD SEASON



It was a gray, upstate Friday on the edge of spring. Beth Prescott had important things on her mind like choosing a career. As she stacked books in the library to help pay tuition, a fisherman listened for the thaw, buds shivered, and ice strained. Nurse, banker or actress, Beth wanted to be all these things, or a fashion designer, so she could make money.

"What do we have here?" Joey asked from behind his American history book. "Would you say it's a girl or a boy?" He pointed at Beth, his face contorted. "Help me out here, guys."

Beth tried to ignore their snickering. Michael Wentworth was okay, but Joey's wisecrack stung. She thought her almost strawberry blond hair looked pretty good, lately, since she'd been growing it long. Okay, she was tall for junior high, but only four classmates had better cleavage. "Like, you'd know the difference," she wanted to say but never would because Joey was badass and cute. Beth had been teased enough times to know she looked like a string bean in her plaid private school uniform. And though she begged to wear short skirts and earrings after school, her mother said, "Puerto Ricans pierce their ears, not us." Beth also knew she looked even worse--Spider Legs Prescott-- in her green field hockey tunic.

Beth waited until the guys were gone, then she wiped tables and walked to her next job at Ginger's house. As she hurried along in the slush and mud, she considered a hotel concierge job. Imagined travelers told Beth about flying far and away. They asked her for advice and loved her suggestions. As she walked, always conscious of her tight schedule, Beth played veterinarian against concierge. Drizzle turned to sleet.

Ginger answered the door in a spandex mini skirt.

"Wow, you look awesome," Beth said.

"Like my hair?" Ginger's ponytail sat high on her head, bangs moussed. "I've been practicing. I'm going to hairdressing school soon."

"Soon?"

Ginger pulled Beth out of the sleet. "Your hair is wet. Come on, I'll fix it."

As they tromped up the stairs, Beth felt a pang of envy. How could Ginger be so close to a glamorous career? "Hair, now?" she asked. "What about math homework?"

Ginger seated Beth on a dainty bench in front of a deluxe boudoir table she shared with two sisters. Beth had seen them gossiping, teasing, swapping plastic clips--making soft, sister sounds. "Haircutting is the art of changing the hair into a style that provides a neat, attractive appearance," Ginger said, parting and combing.

Beth thought of breaking in with her own ideas. But when Ginger was talking about herself, there seemed no better subject. She frowned into the mirror. "We have math homework. Your mother pays me to tutor you."

Ginger groaned and pretended to snip with two fingers. "I'm dropping out and going right to beauty school. I'm already damn good at hair; it's so easy you cannot believe."

"Your mother."

"Screw her. Let her learn math if she loves it so much. Beth, I'm seeing you with a red rinse to, like, add highlights."

"I can't take tutoring money if I didn't earn it."

"Chill." Ginger laughed. "Like I'm going to tell?"

Beth looked at her watch. It was her mother's bridge night, so she was expected to cook dinner.

"Anyway," Ginger said with a look in her eye.

Beth had seen this look many times. Almost constantly, Ginger had a dangerous look. "What?"

Ginger pulled open the bottom drawer of the dressing table and took out a plastic make-up bag smeared with various foundation shades. She licked her lips. "Seen these before?"

Beth gulped. She might have expected Ginger to produce condoms from a secret place or a stolen bracelet from The Jewel Box, even a joint. But this, this was not something she understood. They were real cuffs, not toy store cuffs, and she steadied herself. "Expecting to arrest someone?"

"Maybe," Ginger said, reaching over Beth's shoulder, dangling silver handcuffs in front of her nose. Then, snap! Beth's left hand was cuffed.

Beth spun around. "Hey."

Ginger laughed. "Chill. I've got the key." She rifled in her lipsticks and shadows. "Shit, where is it?"

Ginger was giggling, but Beth was scared. The cold loop looked heavy and official on her skinny wrist. Movie images were Beth's only reference, so she saw herself in prison. She was clamped, wrists and ankles, to a string of rapists in orange zip suits. Her mother's words repeated in her head: "You know I disapprove of Ginger's type. That father beats a punching bag in their garage at night. And that mother--pain pills in bed all day. I allow your little tutoring sessions only for the money. Ginger is a sneaky one."

"Kidding!" Ginger said, holding up the key.

Beth's hammering heart settled. "They look so real, where'd you get them?"

"Oh, they're real. Protection. You know," Ginger said. "If I'm ever in a fight, I'll clamp on these puppies. That should take care of Mr. Big and Strong. If I'm going to leave home soon to be a hairdresser, I can expect some trouble."

Images of convicts and bloody nosed Ginger wrestling with thugs passed. Finally, Beth dragged her through equilateral triangles before rushing home in the sleet.

Elizabeth, Beth's mother, was waiting on the porch, hands on hips. She was in her forties, frail and willowy, with dark circles rimming her eyes. A velvet headband pushed her thin brown hair severely back from her face. Beth slipped inside to warm up dinner. It was the brown stew her mother made on Mondays. Bridge night, Beth served leftovers to her two younger brothers, David and B.J., with bread to stretch it. Her mother called it a dignified dish made from a recipe passed down on her mother's side. It had meat, water, and carrots in it. Beth added catsup because it was dry.

Three things were on her mind as she cooked. Orange zip suits, of course, and her career. Also, a story she'd heard librarians sharing across their desks. When Elizabeth poked her head through the kitchen door, Beth hesitated. She had several related questions, but her mother would be rushed and annoyed.

"I'm off," Elizabeth said. "Bed for the boys by eight."

"Mom?"

"Yes, Beth? Hurry."

"Trudy, at the library, said a family is living in their car."

"Where?"

"Behind the Monroe Street graveyard. Do kids sleep in there?"

"It happens."

"Why?"

"Months and years of living precariously, Beth. Stop worrying about living in our Volvo."

Beth squirted and stirred; bright red catsup blended to brown. "But what do they eat?"

"I have no idea. They got lazy and casual about responsibilities. If you take school for granted or associate with the wrong types, well, a cycle starts spinning."

"How much money do we need so our cycle won't spin?"

"It's vulgar to discuss money."

Beth served her brothers, cleaned up and sent them off to watch ninjas on television. As she did, she considered florist, horse breeder and secret agent, though her mother believed Beth's strong math skills meant medical school. "You'll have to get scholarships," she advised Beth. Her father's plan was for Beth to become an engineer. "High tech employees get stock options."

David and B.J. were grabbing, punching and running through empty rooms. Downstairs, only the Prescott's den and kitchen were furnished, so Beth was not allowed to have people over. The Prescott's priority was education, not sofas. "That's where our pennies go."

Beth called to her brothers, "The show you like is on in five minutes."

It was an hour before Beth finally got upstairs to finish her own homework. She was spreading it on her bed when she heard her father come home. With tilted ear, she listened. First, the boys shouted their hellos; that was normal. Then, she heard rough play, maybe too rough. Her father called upstairs, "You there, Beth?" She heard him climb the stairs slowly, but there was no stumbling.

"Hey, kiddo," he said, crushing her notebook when he sat next to her.

Martin Prescott wore a single vent, gray, lawyer suit. He was well over six feet tall with lots of hair and a broad face. He'd been in a good mood since he'd found a law firm with a premium medical/dental plan.

"Finishing my homework."

"You're a good kid." He leaned to peck her cheek, and she could smell it. She didn't know if he went to bars or if he drank from a brown bag in the car. Where parents got drunk was not important. "Your mother wants a cashmere coat," he said.

"It's March, maybe she can wait until next year?"

"Righto. That's what we'll tell her. Always the peacekeeper, aren't you Beth?"

His blue eyes were off center and goofy. Her stomach tensed. She knew her parents were living on the brink of something because she'd seen them fighting. They weren't door slammers or shouters. In fact, when they were mad, they stopped making noise. They gave each other the ice-in-winter treatment with lots of stiff upper lips. Beth figured out there had been an affair, and they were never to speak of it.

"Your mother's threatening to find a job again, but we know how her nerves are." Strands of graying hair fell over Martin's face. "Anyway, don't stay up too late, kiddo."

Beth heard his hand squeaking along the wall to steady himself. He was on his way to the extra bed in BJ's room. Elvira yelped when she was thrown from the sheets. Beth had named her beagle after a gothic character she admired. Elizabeth said Elvira was a common street name for a factory type or a hairdresser, not an expensive AKA dog. "People will think she's ill bred."

Beth wondered what was wrong with hairdressing. When Ginger went on about the Hollywood celebrities she would do, it seemed excellent. Beth imagined her own fingers, gliding a brush through clean hair. She'd chat, listen to her customers, and feel success coming up from their roots.

Cold air pressed hard on the window frame, and she shuddered to think what her parents would do if they found out about Ginger's handcuffs. "The end of the world." "A horrible influence." "No more Ginger."

"There's my girl," Beth cooed. Elvira made her way to Beth's bed and presented her stomach for scratching. Elvira liked all kids, all beds, and brown stew. "Oh, you," Beth said, rubbing Elvira and whispering the day's events in her ear for a long time even though she was in the middle of converting between Celsius and Kelvin and had to finish if she was going to stay one assignment ahead of her class and get into an ivy league school. Yes, as budding branches trembled outside, and the lake hardened for the night, she was certain. Just like her parents, a first rate education was the right path.

She would be like them, only richer, so she could help those children parked near the graveyard, sitting bolt upright in the backseat. Their heads rolling onto each other's shoulders, their knees and elbows poking plastic bags full of spatulas and pans, their lungs taking in the bad air of worn shoes and rotting food wedged between seats.

***


Saturday was gray. Up and down the street, melting snow dripped from gutters and mucked up yards. Beth and Elvira jumped from bed, ate breakfast and finished the laundry. Cartoons blasted.

"What are you doing this afternoon?" Elizabeth asked.

The boys were still in their pajamas. They were sipping from five glasses of grape juice they had posted around the room. The game was to drink from one glass and jump to the next, sip and jump, sip and jump.

"Hangin' out," Beth said.

"Hangin'? Is that English? Never mind. Take the dog, sweetie, I'm busy. Don't forget, you're babysitting tonight. Dad and I have cocktails at the Ashcroft's before the club. Be home by five." Elizabeth put her hand to her temple. "And stand up straight, please," she said.

"Ready to go, Elvira?" Beth peeked at the weather outside. The slush at the side of the road was brown and deep. The wrong shoes would get sucked off instantly, so Beth pulled on boots and considered telemarketing. She would be so pleasant on the phone, people would chat rather than swear and hang up.

"Mrs. Sweeney?" she asked Elvira. "Is this Mrs. Sweeney?"

"Yes, this is Mrs. Sweeney," Beth replied for Elvira.

"How are you today? My name is Beth Prescott, and I have a vacuum cleaner you would like."

"Send it right over."

If her father got fired again, all that extra money would take pressure off the Prescotts. Finally, they'd have what they needed to be happy. What kind of money did telemarketers make, anyway? Did she need her high school diploma?

They were off. Elvira snorted along Gold Lake's shoreline. To stay warm, Beth wrapped her arms around herself. In March, there were warmish days and cold days. Recent drizzle had exposed scars of winter on the lake's surface, reminders to be aware of flooding water and moving plates.

After a mile, Beth took off her hood, letting breezes circle her face and weak light warm her hair. She followed snowmobile tracks to make the walking easier. After two miles, she was sick of figuring out which career would fix all the Prescott's problems. She lifted her eyes to the horizon, squinted in the glare and began testing ice by throwing rocks out as far she could, stepping forward, throwing again. Even the edges seemed solid, so she struck out to see the world from the middle of the lake.

Now she could see the whole situation. The shoreline was neatly divided into two-acre lots. On each lot stood a house three stories high, shingled, and surrounded by wide porches. Their striped summer awnings were rolled and stored. Beth's heart raced. This perspective, this view, made it so clear. She had to live here. Who wouldn't want to live here?

Her mother said lake houses were historical, yes. But they were not grander or better than the Prescotts' house. What did she mean? Look at them! Beth stared and considered. Definitely, when she became a psychiatrist or office manager, she'd live here. These houses, yards, gazebos, and the people living inside were gorgeous. Lawns flowed effortlessly into water, lights cascaded, waves swelled and swept towards spring. Beth imagined lake parties without space heaters or old stew. All this air and water, music and laughter, made breathing so easy. Ah! She could see this was better. She could feel this was better.

Suddenly, Beth owned a house on the lake. She was a super model with a bank account. "She's amazing," all her classmates said. "Is that really Crazy Legs Prescott on the runway? She's out of control."

But over the roar of applause, Beth heard the faint sigh of trouble a few yards out. She scanned the ice. "Elvira," she shouted, "come here. Now."

Elvira was ankle deep in slush with her nose stuck in a wrapper an ice fisherman left. No hints of spring, no bird songs, no trickles fanning and forming new streams, no colors, and nothing breaking apart, yet. They'd be fine. Beth shivered when the wind found her skin moist with perspiration. She passed Michael Wentworth's house.

Ginger had asked Michael Wentworth to their Spring-Fling at school. Ginger didn't care that every girl who ever danced with him said he was a grinder. "He's really cut," Ginger said, "even if he is all up on you."

Standing on frozen water in the middle of the lake made stuff different. Must be different, because a vision came to Beth she didn't even know she knew. This time it wasn't about dream houses or fashion runways. Clearly and precisely, as she passed Michael's house, she imagined a strange thing. She and Ginger were handcuffing Michael to a metal bed. Why? Had she seen girls doing stuff in movies? Was her vision related to grinding? Ginger's handcuffs were so, like, risky.

Oh my God. There was a figure in a second story window. It had to be Michael. Beth giggled into her woolen mitten and turned towards home. "What a retard you were for not waving or at least giving him the finger," Ginger would say. Beth agreed, she should have done something, but she never would.

And she should've asked somebody to the dance. Over and over, she'd considered guys her parents might approve of. But the guys her parents liked were short. "Chill," Ginger would have said, "You're like towing the line, ask anybody."

Oh my God. She looked at her watch. Her mother would kill her. Beth called for Elvira who was upside down, rubbing her back in the snow as if it were hot sand. Beth laughed out loud and scurried home with flushed cheeks. She was thrilled with her Michael sighting and her Michael fantasy. She was feeling the way Ginger must feel all the time--loose, cool, and dangerous.

She reached for the door at one minute to five, but Elizabeth pulled it open. She wore a black wool dress and a string of family pearls with matching clip-on earrings. Elizabeth's pearl necklace set was her last reminder of debutante days. She looked tired even though she wore concealer and a dab of lipstick for the party. "Where have you been?"

Beth smiled. "On the lake, walking with Elvira."

"On the lake? Beth, it's March. The lake isn't frozen solid. How could you be so irresponsible?"

"We were careful." Beth's smile faded, she could see her mother's tight lips and coiled shoulders.

"Where is that dog?"

"She's coming, she was right behind me."

"Michael Wentworth's father called us. He said you were floating around on the lake. He was frantic, but we assured him it wasn't you. And here you are." Her voice trembled. "We're humiliated. You'll need to think long and hard, young lady, about this public display."

Beth was baffled. Which public display was she supposed to think about? The time Mr. Wentworth rammed a lady with his powerboat. Her mother's fancy cashmere coat idea? Their ugly house with no sofa? She wished she'd given Wentworth the finger.

Martin tripped, as he came down the stairs in his navy jacket with gold buttons. "Is that Beth? What's all this nonsense? Have you been putting lives in danger?"

"It was fun, nothing happened."

"Fun? Where's that dog?"

As her mother sighed and held fingers to her temple, rather than speaking, her father went on slurring. He did not sneak Beth a wink, as he sometimes did, when her parents presented a united front. Beth was amazed how frantic they were.

"According to Mike Wentworth, that dog was headed in the wrong direction," Elizabeth said. "I wonder if you're the most irresponsible girl I know or if you take great pleasure in constantly disappointing us? Which is it Beth?"

Adrenaline rushed to Beth's head, and her hands shook, though she fought hard to steady them. It took all of her resources to stay in control, leaving nothing for an argument or her own defense. She needed to figure this out alone. What were they so frantic about?

"Can you ever be trusted again?" Martin asked.

Elizabeth answered for her. "Beth has decided not to communicate with us, Martin. Let's go. What kind of impression will we make on the tennis tournament committee if we're late? Beth seems to have forgotten we're picking new members tonight." She turned to Beth. "We've talked about this. Appearances matter. Martin, get your coat."

The door slammed. "Stop it," Beth shouted when they couldn't hear.

Defiance and disappointment settled to a distant roar in empty rooms, and Beth watched for Elvira at the window. When she ran to the bathroom, cartoon music looped in the background. Confusion had made her sick. Excitement, danger, and fear had made her sick. This emergency wasn't about Elvira at all. In the mirror, Beth asked, "Appearances? Is that it?"

She fed the boys dinner, turned off lights, wrapped a blanket around herself and waited for dog sounds. She waited an hour, then another, until midnight, when the boys had stopped hitting and biting each other and fallen asleep in a heap. Her nose and fingertips were blue. She swung open the porch door and walked out onto the dark front lawn, bathed in neither moonlight nor starlight. She would go find Elvira.

Beth stepped from the stairs to check the street both ways. "Oh, my God," she gasped. There was Elvira, zigzagging her way home. Her nose went from the Baxter's mailbox to brambles to spring smells between fence slats. "Elvira!"

Elvira's head shot up. Without hesitating, she ran towards Beth, ears flopping and tail wagging.

Beth reached. "There's my girl," she said, folding Elvira in her arms.

Elvira was home. Instantly, all the fear and confusion Beth had turned inward eased. But as relief trickled to frozen fingers and toes, Beth's anxious mind raced. Her parents were wrong. Suddenly, like when she calculated the circumference of a rectangle and remembered to convert units, she smiled. Because she knew, she knew. Her parents were wrong about everything.

"Guess what?" she asked Elvira.

"Tell me," Elvira seemed to say.

"I have a date for the dance."

Elvira cocked her head.

"Next time Joey says I look like a boy? I'll clamp him to a chair with Ginger's cuffs, and I'll kiss him real hard. I'll stick my tongue in there when I do, that'll show him who's a girl. Ha!" Beth hesitated. She had no idea where she was going with this. "Then I'll ask him to the Spring-Fling. Yeah, that's it. I'll come home and tell Mom and Dad, real calm, I'll say, 'You want to talk about appearances? Good, let's talk about appearances. A guy, two grades ahead, is picking me up for the dance in his monster truck. We're double dating with Ginger. Ha! His name is Joey, Joey Rodriquez.'"

Elvira took all this in. Then she nudged open the front door and raced for the kitchen. While Elvira hoped for a smear of brown stew on the floor, Beth lingered outside, breath rising, listening to ice melt by slow centimeters, hoping she'd really do it.








Carter Schwonke is a graduate of Syracuse University and University College London. Her short stories have appeared in Blueline, Snake Nation and Calliope.







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