I loved riding the Water Whee-Knee behind my uncle’s speed boat. Summer vacations we spun around Lake Sweetwater, round and round, careful not to go too near the submerged trees, petrified and strangled by West Texas bric-a-brac and various natural and manmade keepsakes. Tumbleweeds, dead fish, plastic bags, and beer cans sometimes. My cousins and sister and me, my uncle, sometimes my oldest cousin’s boyfriend. Uncle and Boyfriend would drink beer from cans, Pabst Blue Ribbon or sometimes white cans that said BEER on them. Generic, cheap. Our moms stayed behind on the shore and laid still as long as they could in the dust and silence, usually inside the camper or the cabin, out of the heat. Mom broke out in red bumps in the heat, as well as when she was pissed off at someone. Aunt had ornate bleached hair she kept tied into a sheer floral kerchief. They both wore lipstick. Bathing suits, even high heels, like ladies in a Marilyn Monroe movie. I only saw them waterski a few times. Mom was good at it. I couldn’t do it. I could only ride an inner tube or the Water Whee-Knee.
Uncle went fast, always fast, but I wanted him to go faster. Faster, faster, each time I visited. This time he went really fast. I saw him look back at me, smile and beer can shining in the sunlight. I was adoring him as I hit another boat’s wake and flew high into the air off the Water Whee-Knee. I laughed and came down into the water. Something hit me in the head. Maybe the plastic handle of the Whee-Knee, but then, something else. Again and again and I realized it was water, and the Whee-Knee was long gone, but I was still moving fast behind the boat, having forgotten to let go the tow rope. I was flopping behind the boat, underwater, up above it, and belly-slamming down again. It seemed I couldn’t make my fingers let go. I tried to scream at Uncle to stop the boat. I felt forsaken and I swallowed water. Why wasn’t anyone helping me? I screamed again, swallowing so much water that a flood came in instead of a scream going out. This finally made me let go of the tow rope. My life jacket brought me to a safe stop, floating and gasping for air. I couldn’t see the boat for a moment, but got my bearing and spotted it. Something was wrong on the boat. I heard shouting, I heard Sister crying. I heard my cousins screaming. I swam for it.
Something had snapped between Uncle and Boyfriend. As I reached the ladder on the side of the boat, I could see Small Cousin cowering, Little Sister crying and Big Cousin screaming at Uncle and Boyfriend.
“Daddy, stop it! Just stop it! Y’all are drunk, y’all both stop fightin’!”
The men stood face to face, fists raised, eye to eye, breathing hard, sunburned, BEER spilling from dropped white cans on the floor of the boat and then, they parted. No one seemed at all concerned about me. Uncle popped open another BEER, muttered something about a pussysonofabitchass and started around to get the Water Whee-Knee. He pulled it up and threw it on my lap. It was big and I didn’t like it on top of me, but it was the only place on the boat the Whee-Knee fit. Sister came to sit by my feet, underneath it, still afraid.
“Uncle,” I gasped, my voice barely making it out of my throat in one piece.
“We goin’ home, baby,” he said, apparently having read my mind. I patted Sister, leaning down to whisper comfort to her just as the cursing and shouting started up again. The two men met in the aisle between the seats, shoving the Water Whee-Knee up against me. They started shoving each other hard. I was trapped. I screamed to Sister to get up to the front of the boat, which was still cruising at a fairly high rate of speed, but with no captain. Cousins were screaming, “Daddy, Daddy, stop it!” The men were screaming at each other about motherfuckers and fucking each other’s mothers. Fists began to fly and everything went black for a minute.
I came to with Uncle and Boyfriend shaking me, screaming at me, and my nose hurt. I couldn’t breathe at all for a bit. When I got air, I shouted, “You hit me, you hit me, you hit me, I want my mommy, I want my mommy, get away from me! Get away from me!”
Sister was screaming as Uncle caught the boat from drifting into that organic bric-a-brac and keepsakes the shores of Lake Sweetwater collected. Someone handed me a BEER to put on my nose, and Uncle was saying over and over, “You’re mama’s gonna kill me.”
She didn’t kill him, but she broke out in red dots of anger and threw me into the car. “You’ll pay the E.R. bill, and you will also pay for a plastic surgeon to fix her nose if you broke it, you son of a bitch,” she was screaming as she got behind the wheel. She spun out onto the road, gravel pinging and flying into the windows, lighting a cigarette and telling me it would be okay.
It was okay. The nurse at the Sweetwater hospital looked like my deceased grandmother, and the doctor told me my nose was not broken and would be fine. Mom took me back to the cabin to get Sister and our bags, but I stayed in the car. I knew there would be more yelling. While Mom was inside, Uncle came out. He leaned into the open passenger window, looking pained and nearly in tears. He smelled like BEER and Marlboros.
“Baby, Uncle is so sorry. You know Uncle would never hurt you, don’t you baby?”
I looked at him steady, holding an ice pack to my aching nose. After a minute, I said, “No.”
He looked down and said, “Baby, I’m real sorry, but you’re okay. It’s not the end of the world, now. You know I’d never hurt you.”
I swallowed a little cry and said, “You would too. Please go away.”
Uncle went away.
Dena Rash Guzman is a poet living on a family farm near Portland, Oregon. Life Cycle, her first book of poems, was released by Dog On A Chain Press in June 2013. Other works can be read at the Rumpus, the Nervous Breakdown, on Ink Node and at www.denarashguzman.com.