Baby fat melted off; skin like soft creamy caramel cooked under the slow steady heat of a long lazy summer, the kind of summer you don’t get after you are sixteen and old enough to hold down a summer job. Shirt tail tied in a knot at the belly button; training bra outgrown, replaced by one with real-woman hooks in the back; short shorts slung low around her widening hips. Straight blonde hair pulled back off her neck, the soles of her turquoise blue flip flops worn almost through at the balls of her feet and in the curve of the heel. Legs freshly shaved, smoothed over with Coppertone.
They slung the withered truck tire tubes over the handlebars of their bikes, flung one leg over the back and pumped the pedals from a standing position on thick steeled single speed cruisers. When they finally got the bike chains warm and rolling, they planted their bottoms on the soft wide seats as they streamed along the side of the back roads to the gas station out by the canal. There, around back by the water hose, they took turns bending over their wimpy black ringlets, pressing the air pump lip to lip with the metal thingy on the tubes. The boys knew the official names for these things. The girls didn’t. Still don’t.
The lifeless rubber rings breathed in the air, woke to their purpose, stood at attention all firm and round. The kids laid their bikes on the grassy spot by the road and rolled the inflated tubes to the bridge. One by one they slid down the embankment, following the worn path where the grassy outgrowth gave way. One of them stood in the water holding the tube for the other while she balanced on the waters edge, her hands grasping the long grass, letting go when she thought her bottom was situated over the hole in the tube. Then, one hand wrapped in a clump of long green whistle grass, she held the other tube for her friend. The boys did the same from the other side of the water. They floated down the whispering canal, bums nestled in the center of their tubes, dipping in and out of the frigid water…floated under the branches of large farm trees, through the shifting shadows of billowing Idaho clouds sailing through a deep blue Idaho sky, her summer tanned feet dangling in the water. Occasionally she flicked them, casually, splashing light filled droplets onto the golden brown skin stretched across the back of that boy… flirting with her toes, holding her hand in the water to twirl the tube, laying her head back, feeling the sun pulsing on her cheeks, her pony tail swishing behind her in the cool meandering water. That’s how it was done in Idaho.
She never tubed in Pennsylvania. The rivers she crossed were wide and restless, undisciplined, rocky and sooty, the residual flow of coal and slag and chemicals from the steel mills swirled and swished. The water there was too high or too fast, at least the waters she knew. They had no secret spots there in the east, though I’m sure they were there somewhere. There were no cousins in Pennsylvania to lead her to them; not even one.
Right there on the soft round edge of the steps, the ones that came down from heaven. She took them slowly at first, when she was little. But lately she was speeding up, interested in what was down there at the bottom. Now she stood there, on step fourteen, her toes hanging over, the weight of her body rocking back and forth between child and woman.
Heartsick and homesick as the old station wagon pulled into the driveway of her house on the hill; far…far…far from Idaho…there where the crabapple bloomed so massively pink in the spring, where the leaves of autumn laid thick and wet under her feet as she walked to school; where the summer-night air was heavy and mulchy and sweet; where flickering fireflies still left her charmed.