A BROOKSIDE PARK SUNBURN
From The Southeast Review Volume 30.1
Winner of SER‘s 2011 World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest
We were thirteen and it was the summer of ugliness. Bony feet, rough and black-green on bottom, concave chests and taut lower bellies—still not quite women, lips chewed and chapped, ratty chlorine-bleached hair on end—no mothers around to fix it, every inch of our ugly little bodies electric, alive.
Our summer camp was a cement hole in Brookside Park. It was the summer our mothers disappeared, and all we had was the pool in the middle of a park that took people nowhere. Crackheads and gangsters scattered like trash, and there we sat in the center, smoldering like Naomi Campbell, looking like charred, deflated marshmallows. Between the beat-boys and us: a six-foot steel fence and thirteen-year-old ugliness. They drummed brown fingers on the concrete ledge at the top of their half-pipe, Raiders caps fl at-brimmed and low over shifty eyes, Grand Master Flash bumping out skate beats. We dodged the pool glare to gaze
through steel bars, shivered at the water’s touch. Even then, they were irresistible. The way their dark eyes never met ours.
That summer, we couldn’t find trouble. Oh, we looked. Kicking our legs in the body-heated water, tinged with child-urine, aching for something, but we didn’t quite know what: someone else’s skin to stroke, or someone else’s skin to cloak ourselves in. Ours burned, but it was worth it to be touched, even if by the sun. We sizzled and stared at the beat-boys and wondered, occasionally, where our mothers were. The boys skated and smoked and sometimes kissed dark-haired girls, never
looking our way, and we settled for a whistle from a crackhead haunting the tennis courts, a line from one of the old molesters: “Got two nipples for a dime?” They were sympathetic, those Brookside Park sleazes.
We were too ugly to find trouble that summer, thank God. What we did find: a few bucks in pool change, spent on ice cream we licked while staring at what wasn’t ours; that a white girl’s skin could become copper with enough sun, but it would never draw a beat-boy’s hand the way a real brown girl’s would; that the skin you were cloaked in was yours and always would be, no matter how you cooked it, sloughed it, painted it, cursed it; that like pennies and Lady Liberty, our lustrous blond hair—all we had—turned green in chlorine. Our mothers, ridiculous in hot pants and heels, skipped off on memories of better times with our fathers, and
we found that you could feel sorry for yourself over things that hadn’t yet happened because, at thirteen, you knew some of what the future had stuck you with. We found that when it rained people like us wanted it to pour so we could catch our electric selves on fire and say, “Man, that’s something.” Our ice cream melted. We were smack dab in the middle of a drought.
Kim Henderson is originally from New Mexico, and now lives on a mountain in
Southern California, where she writes and teaches creative writing at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. She received an MFA from the University of Montana, and has published work in The Southeast Review, River Styx, Newport Review, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a novel.