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Maxine Chernoff

Death Swap

"Is Lou Reed Jewish?" Frank asks Della.

"How do I know? Do you think we're all acquainted with each other?" Della wipes sweat off of her eyebrows, which are heavy and slightly curly. No one else is at the pool, which looks like a blue lima bean. She peers toward the dining room door hoping that someone will step through it. Not that she's seen anyone interesting or young at the Napa Glen Lodge. The rest of the guests resemble her grandparents. She wonders if young people go on vacation these days.

"I'm just reading this article, and Lou Reed says he admires Bob Dylan and Paul Simon." Frank swats a place on his back where a fly has landed, then cries out in pain. He shouldn't have gotten so much sun. It's always a mistake on vacation. Looking at his legs, which are striped pink, he imagines them as landing strips in a jungle recently cleared by natives.

"Mom called," Della says.

"If a man bites a dog, that's news," Frank answers, letting the magazine fall over his forehead. He turns on his side, extending his knees toward Della. He performs this act slowly since his back is so tender. Lying this way, he can admire Della as something composed of tan flesh, muscular shoulders, firm breasts and long legs. For a minute he feels content again, as if their vacation isn't an acknowleged mistake they have to endure for three more days.

"Mom hasn't called since we were back home. I don't know why it pisses you off that she calls."

Frank watches Della wait for his response. Her upper lip is squeezed together like a piece of soft candy.

"Why did she name you Della? It's old-fashioned."

"That's the point. After Della Street."


"The woman on the Perry Mason Show. Oh, I forgot. You only watch MTV. You wouldn't know who Perry Mason is."

"He's the guy in the wheelchair who solves crimes even though he's grossly overweight."

"Fact check. That's Ironsides, a later incarnation of Raymond Burr. At least you have the right actor." Della closes her eyes and hums something to herself.

If she'd only have less opinions they'd get along fine, Frank thinks. "What did your mother want this time?"

"To tell me that Dad's going to be here in two hours. He's been doing business in San Francisco and thought he'd come by and say hello."

"Is this the same dad you and your mother constantly bash?"

"We don't bash him unjustly. I just sympathize with her on the issue of their divorce. Dad's bringing Kathy, by
the way."

"His new wife?"

"How many times have I told you that Jessica is his new wife, and Kathy is his stepchild?"

An elderly man is standing at the far end of the pool. He carefully places his towel over a beach chair, his watch on top of the towel, his glasses next to the watch, and his thongs under the chair. Then he makes an imperfect dive into the pool and side strokes its length. He is standing in the water near Della and Frank.

"I heard somewhere that Stephen Sondheim likes to tie people up," Frank says, smiling. If they were getting along, his remark would cause any tension to melt. Frank would swear on a witness stand that Della has a sense of humor when she wants to.

"What's your source?" Della asks.

The man in the pool appears to be listening. Frank cups his hand over his mouth and whispers something to Della.

"He did not tie you up!" Della says loud enough for the man to hear. "Maybe you wish he would."

Frank rolls his eyes lasciviously.

Della spreads more suntan lotion over her shoulders and onto her thighs.

"You're beautiful when you're angry," Frank says. He reaches to put his hand on her calf.

She pushes it off like she's swatting flies. "Then I must be beautiful all the time since I met you." She closes her eyes. A few minutes later she uses a different tone of voice to say, "We should be dressed when they arrive."

"Won't the kid . . ."

"Kathy is her name."

"Won't Kathy want to swim? When I was a child, that's all I did on vacations. Swim, swim, swim."

Della finishes her glass of mineral water and closes her eyes. After making herself completely comfortable, she says, "Kathy can swim if she wants. We don't all have to join her. We can sit in chairs like adults and talk to my father. I haven't seen Roland in almost a year."

"What shall we talk about?"

Della doesn't answer. She's decided to take a nap. "Cover your legs if you're going to sleep. They're red as lobsters

"Okay, Mom," Frank says jumping into the pool and swimming twelve laps without stopping.


"I have nothing to wear," Della says, pouting into the

Frank has put on a long white tee shirt and new jeans with the creases still in them.

"You look like an ad for the Gap."

"At least I'm ready," Frank says. "He'll be here in twenty minutes."

"How about this?" Della asks and holds up a flowered
jersey dress.

"It would show off your tan."

Frank has walked over to where Della's standing. He sits in front of her on the bed wincing up at her face because his legs are so burnt.

"I'm not trying to display my tan. I merely want to look presentable." She's put on the flowered dress and is fastening a necklace made of small irregular turquoise and coral beads and tiny bells. It makes a slight tinkling sound as she brushes her hair, applies lipstick and mascara.

"I read there's new mascara for men that defines your eyelashes without adding color."

"First you want to be tied up and now you covet my make-up. Try to hide your perversity in front of my dad, please."


They're sitting in the nearly empty dining room. It's three o'clock, an off-hour at the lodge and though they serve "High Tea" from three to five, no one's very interested with the temperature over one hundred degrees. Her father's dressed in a beige poplin suit. He's wearing a light blue shirt and a pink, yellow, and cream striped tie. He has Della's thick eyebrows, but his hair is much curlier and mixed with gray. He appears to be amused in advance of anything being said. Della imagines a stranger would call his face sympathetic. Kathy looks like she was manufactured in a different country than her step-father. Her eyes are light blue and her complexion pale. Her hair is blonde and thin, worn in a blunt cut that ends abruptly at her chin. She's eleven. Her angularity clashes with the table they've chosen. Kathy tries sitting with her elbows on the table. Then she crosses her legs and folds her arms over them on her lap. Then she adjusts her tank top, fiddles with the drawstring of her shorts, cups her chin in one hand and tells the waitress she'll just have Seven-Up. The rest of them have
ordered "High Tea." The waitress has brought over a silver and glass pastry tray. Roland makes up a small plate for Kathy and suggests she'll want it later. Della watches her father.

"Dad," Kathy says in an exasperated tone familiar to Della. It strikes Della as odd that she also calls this man Dad.

"Mom tells me you're up here for a week," Roland says. "Any special reason or just a little break?"

"We thought we'd get away before I start graduate school and Della begins her job," Frank offers.

"Mom told me you'd be working in the art department."

"Right. I'll be answering arty phone calls and Xeroxing arty supply orders."

"You never know how you can make use of diverse training later in life. Kathy's mom has a degree in Classics, but she's in lobbying now. She writes speeches for environmental groups and goes up to Sacramento all the time."

There is a long pause. Della doesn't think that she wants to hear more about Jessica. "What is it you do?" she asks Kathy.

"Not much."

"Kathy's going into sixth grade. She's very good in science and plays the cornet."

"I'm not sure I know what a cornet is," Della says.

"It's a small trumpet," Kathy explains. She holds her fingers in the air and pretends to be playing.

"I used to play the saxophone," Frank says. He holds an imaginary sax in the air and strains to reach a note.

"I also like games," Kathy says.

"What kind of games?" Della asks.

"Games my dad and I make up."

"Like what?" Della asks.

"There's one we play called Death Swap."

"Sounds spooky," Frank says.

"How does it go?" Della asks. She thinks she's not feeling very well. The light from the windows near the pool looks too bright. The dish of pastries in front of her appears to be swimming in a cloud. Maybe she has to throw up.

"You think of who's dead and who you want back. Like John Lennon."

"Have you read the latest about John Lennon?" Frank asks anyone who's listening. "Seems he liked to pee in people's . . ."

Della gives Frank a smiting look.

"So who would you take?" Kathy asks Della.

"I don't understand," Della says.

"I offer you someone in exchange for John Lennon. If you accept him, I can have John Lennon."

"How can I give you John Lennon?"

"This is just a game, Della," her father explains. "Kathy doesn't expect you to give her John Lennon."

"So I tell you who'd I'd accept in exchange for John

"Right. Like maybe a movie star, or it could be a politician or a sports figure. He has to be just as valuable as John Lennon, though."

"How about Michael Jackson?" Frank says.

"You're not playing. I am," Della says. There is a funny light coming off the silverware. Della closes her eyes and blinks twice quickly. She sees that everyone is waiting for her to answer. "My mind is blank," she says. "Besides, how do you make points?"

"You don't. Isn't having John Lennon or John F. Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe back enough?"

"Okay, you give me Dad for John Lennon," Della says.

"You can't use people you know. It gets too personal then."

Della is watching her father's face. A smile is covering it like asphalt.

"That's my final offer, Kathy."

"Della's a real card," Frank is saying. "Why don't we try it again? Let's you and me play, Kathy. Okay, who would you give me for the Big Bopper?" Frank asks.

"How about Dolly Parton?" Kathy asks.

"Excuse me," Della says. She thinks she'll go stand by the pool and get some fresh air. The carpeting is swirling at her feet. Her lips are dry and her throat feels closed, as if it'll never swallow again.

The next thing she knows, everyone's standing around her. Frank is putting a cool towel on her forehead. Her father's in a squat, holding her wrist in his hand. Kathy looks like she's trying to hold back tears. "Will she be okay?" Kathy's asking.

"I think she's okay already," Frank explains. "Too much sun can do this to someone."

Della says she'll get up. She staggers over to the nearest table and holds her head in her hands.

"I really wish we could stay and take you all to dinner," Roland is saying. "I would have liked this visit to have left us all with a better feeling."

Della waves off the comment with her hand. Then her face clears of its misery. "Why don't Frank and I ride back with you?" Della asks. "This vacation isn't working out anyway."

"I don't think that's a good idea, Della. They have a plane to catch in San Francisco."

"Having us in the car won't make them drive any slower. Besides, I don't feel well. I think it would be better to be in the city if I'm possibly sick."

"Della, it was just the sun. We overdid it outside."

"I'll be happy to drive you back," Roland says.


Since it's Sunday night, they're caught in an endless line of traffic returning from Wine Country. Kathy and Roland sit in the front seat of the rented Taurus. Frank and Della share the back seat. Della is closing her eyes and leaning her head on Frank's shoulder. Her father is talking to Frank.

"There's lots of room in arts management. You might consider getting a law degree, too. Lots of legalese in every field today. Think of how baseball has changed. Someone couldn't have an agent who isn't a lawyer anymore.? He waits for Frank's reply.

"They're both asleep, Dad," Kathy says. "What do you think was wrong with Della? I never saw anyone faint before."

"Probably just the sun," he says, "or too much excitement."

"Playing Death Swap isn't that exciting."

Roland smiles at Kathy, who has taken a Mad Libs game out of her duffel bag.

"Give me an adjective."

"Straining," Della says.

"You're awake? I was talking to your friend and he fell
asleep," Roland says.

"No doubt you were asking him about his career. He
always falls asleep when people ask him about his career. Frank's going to grad school, but he hopes his band will still make it big."

"What's the band's name?" Kathy asks. She unbuckles her seat belt and sits on her knees with her chin perching on top of the headrest so she can see Della better.

"Pardon me, Kathy, but they're called Cock."

Kathy turns around and fastens her seat belt again.

"This traffic is endless," Roland says. He hums quietly for a minute in the same way Della does when she's nervous. "We should have been back by now. I didn't think it possible that we'd be cutting it close."

"You can drop us anywhere, Dad, as soon as you're back in the city."


At 9:30 they pull up in front of Frank and Della's
apartment, the second floor of a Victorian near Golden Gate Park.

"I wish you could come up," Della tells her dad.

"My next trip," Roland assures. He's unloaded their luggage onto the sidewalk. Then he gives Della a light hug.

"Watch the sunburn," she says. She peers into the back window of the car. "I'll wake up Sleeping Beauty."

Kathy smiles broadly.

"Frank!" She opens the door and shakes his arm.

Startled awake, Frank sits up and stretches, realizes they're home, and bolts out of the car. He stands on the sidewalk rubbing his eyes with the stupefied look of a child.

Frank and Roland shake hands. Roland embraces Della again and tells her to take it easy for a few days.

"Why did you call your band that gross name?" Kathy asks out of her window before they pull away.

"His last girlfriend suggested it," Della explains, waving good-bye. She watches her dad roll up the car's automatic windows and speed away down the long sloping street.

"A memorable day," Frank says as he takes a suitcase in either arm up the stairs.

"Who would you give me for Lou Reed?" Della asks when they've reached their landing.

"Lou Reed's not dead yet," Frank says.

"It's good to plan for the future," Della says, hesitating at their door.

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