On Saturdays, my father sleeps in until 9, eats his shredded wheat and downs a cup of coffee. Then he cuts the grass or finishes some other chore. Afterward, when he doesn't sneak off to the pool room, we go for a ride in the car. Just him and me. To Lincoln Place to visit my grandparents or to Beltzhoover to gorge on my great-grandmother's hot doughnuts. Or, sometimes, on warm days, he drives to Dormont Park.
Dad sits me on the bleachers overlooking the dusty field where he joins some guys in a softball game for a few innings while I daydream about princesses or cowgirls. Then he leads the way back down the bleachers for a too-short stay at the playground.
But one Saturday, Dad parked our bulbous Plymouth on the street by the park entrance. He walked and I skipped down the tree-lined road to its end. In the clearing beside the locked dance pavilion stood empty swings, empty slides, empty seesaws and, my favorite, a large, roof-covered sandbox. Empty.
"Please, please, please?" I asked.
My father hesitated.
"Just don't go away from here," he said and headed for the steps to the ball field. "I want to be able to see you." Dad pointed at the fenced dugout.
"Okay," I chirped, delighted that no other children were around to mess up my sand highways, castles and cakes. I sang This Old Man all the way to "he played knick-knack on my hen" and didn't once look up for my father. After a while, I flitted between the swings and the slide. Thirsty, I swallowed a few mouthfuls of water from the central fountain, mindful of Mother's caution, "Never put your lips on a spigot." Germs.
Then I heard voices.
Two boys appeared, I supposed about 8 or 10, older than me, on the path from the swimming pool. They wore striped jerseys tucked into jeans rolled up at the cuff. Both sported crew cuts and high-top tennies. The redhead had freckles all over his face and, as Grandma would say, "the devil in his eye." The two chortled and horse-punched each other as they reached the crest of the hill.
Wary, I eased back into a swing, careful not to pinch my fingers on its thick chain.
The boys raced to the fountain. They took turns splashing each other and hollered when the icy water met the target.
The redhead turned and focused on me. "You better not drink out of here." He paused and yanked one of his pal's cauliflower ears. "A snake crawled down and died right here in this pipe." He knocked on it.
"Yep. A rattlesnake," said Big Ears. "They're poisonous. DEADLY poisonous."
Red squinted. "Did you drink out of here already?"
"Too late then. Everybody knows if you drink snake water, you die."
Big Ears agreed. "Takes three days."
"Yeah, no cure. You just wake up dead — in three days."
I felt as if a big stone were lodged in my chest.
Both boys grew grim, then meandered off, up the lane. Their laughter resumed as they hurled bits of gravel at the overhanging branches.
Neither looked back.
I remained lifeless on the swing. For how long, I couldn't say.
The water had tasted funny.
I counted off "Saturday, Sunday, Monday," on my fingers. Monday. Poor Mother would find me — dead in bed.
"Don-na, time to go-o." My dad bounded down the steps and summoned me with an "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder" whistle.
I rose, brushed the sand off my clothes and put my hand into his.
"Did you have fun?" he asked.
I didn't tell him about the snake water. I didn't tell anyone.
Late Sunday afternoon at the dinner table, I thought of what will happen overnight. After this, my last supper. I wasn't feeling sick, yet. Would it hurt? Why, oh why, did I drink that water?
Tears slid down my cheeks.
Mother bustled in from the kitchen with a platter of sliced rump roast and Grandma's gravy boat. "What's the matter with you?"
"I'm gonna die tonight," I blubber, " 'cause I drank SNAKE water."
Her nose wrinkles. "What in the world is snake water?"
The story pours out of me and floods the dining room.
"Those boys were just devilin' you. There's no such thing as snake water." Mother wraps her arms around me. "You aren't going to die."
A hiccupy sob escapes.
"Run upstairs and wash your face. Dinner's near ready."
As I climb the stairs, I watch Mother's eyes narrow into serpentlike slits. "GRANT," she calls, "C'MERE A MINUTE."
From her look and tone, I sense Dad's in trouble. Big trouble.
Now I worry. Would we ever be allowed to go to the park again?
Donna E. Glausser is a Tampa writer.