“Soaping Up” * Fiction * Mike Lewis-Beck

“Why aren’t you in class or on the courts?” asked a guest, rustling the calm of the sun-soaked corridor of Total Tennis (TT), a summer camp for teen women. “The campanile bell rang at 6:00 a.m.”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Marina, a 19-year-old counselor-in-training. “Monday through Saturday, before breakfast, we’re all supposed to take a workshop. Yesterday mine was Better Backhand. Today it’s Kinesiology.”

The student could explain Kinesiology to this new lady but decided not to since she had a hard time pronouncing it, plus she had skipped the session in order to hit balls against a garage door, like Arthur Ashe. Now she was pitted out and yearned for a good soak.

“That’s what I profess, at Iowa. Muscle mechanics and nutrition.”

“You’re the clinic talk in Burge this afternoon. Can’t wait! I’m Marina,” she said as they left the corridor and together climbed the stairs, both with towels over their shoulders and toiletry kits in their hands. Professor Erikson stopped speaking but could not help but feel the flush of pride that rose within her, from Marina’s obvious excitement over her talk about her new book, Protein Power and Women’s Tennis: Be the Beef.  Marina herself had a groupie moment in the presence of this heralded tennis specialist. They walked on, the only sound their flip-flops on the concrete until, at a balcony landing, they pushed through heavy metal portals. The washroom itself, a relic of married student housing from the 1940s G.I. Bill, contained bathtubs, not showers, and half-tubs at that. Moreover, their water pipes were as wide as bigmouth bass and when all the taps were running full open for the many sweaty campers, the racket was like Iguazu Falls.

Professor Erikson paused to put up her corded ginger hair, as she stood before a gallery of mirrors that overlooked short bamboo stalls, each partitioning a white tub, in silhouette like a Danish egg chair, but for washing not sitting. “Where do I store my things?”

“Pick a tub,” said Marina, pointing. “Next to it’s a stand. Take a tub toward the windows. You’ll see the camp’s oldest oak, from George Washington’s seeds.”

“Very well,” she said, before drawing a cozy, if noisy, bath and settling in, sinking as low as her raised knees allowed. She decided the gushing water came from a well, because of its iron smell and because of the red stains on the tub enamel. Hunky-dory. Like the farm. After this soak I’ll have to feed the chickens, ha!….Soap, soap up— soapy, soapy. More hot water on my knees. If I had a yellow rubber ducky…she daydreamed, almost falling asleep, when Marina’s face appeared, up close and dry. The soaking lady almost jumped out of her pearly skin.

“Sorry Doc E—can I call you that? Those soap slips the other girls leave behind are gross. You spare me a bar?” Marina popped her knuckles as she spoke.

‘Doc E’ continued soaping and thinking. This young person has an earthy directness and a chemist’s focus. Plus, she’ll praise me to everyone in the camp. “Marina?”

“You know my name? Sweet!”

“The monogram on your bathrobe. Allow me to terminate my scrub. All this grit above my metatarsals.”

While the bather dug at her toes, Marina sped ahead. “That Physi-O quiz on Friday about the coats of the stomach. My uncle Diego—he handles hogs—says they’re like tripe guts and that when he drinks too much beer it frets the coats of his stomach. Like, what does….”

The professor interrupted. “My name’s Freydis. Use my soap.” She presented Marina the bar, then her commanding body let go a mighty swish, as she began her sturdy ascent. Water-woman, she planted a dripping foot four-square on the tile. She hoisted her other foot over the tub lip and out, glowing toes gripping a straw mat. A vascular forearm lay across her breasts, like a Norse shield. A bocce ball bicep flexed as she reached over, unhooked a snow-white robe, shook off her wetness, then draped her metric shoulders. The mirrors behind her rippled with steam.

This Viking water wave startled Marina, as did the soap itself. The suds were dish water scum, gray and dirty. The bar felt sandy and smelled cheesy.  “This soap sucks!” she said, almost hurling it at Freydis.

“Been sold in neighborhood groceries for a hundred years. Made of pumice, from volcanoes. As they say, ‘cleans the dirt, protects the skin.’”

“It’s scouring my skin!” said Marina, as she imagined her skin like crust in a crock pot, waste basket crud, scabbed masa on a tortilla press. I want lavender and shea butter and bubbles, she mused.

“Here’s a new body bar I’m experimenting with.” Freydis passed her a mud-colored outsized rectangle that could be mistaken for a brick sprouting hay. “Made with thistle and black pepper. Try it?” Marina could not answer. She lowered herself into tub and splashed her tears away. She wanted to impress the Professor and have equations explained, physiological terms decoded, and an invitation to the muscle lab in Seashore Quad. Instead she got soap only an auto mechanic would use.

*

In Burge Hall, the cafeteria, the tennis campers gathered, eager to hear Professor Erikson, if for no other reason than it was not about topspin or the composition of plasma. Instead, it concerned a subject dear to their young and hungry hearts—food. What to eat and why and how it made you a better tennis player, even a better human being. Head of Camp and Director of Racquets, Betty Lou Hamilton, tapped a whistle on a tabletop, to bring the weaving crowd of ponies to order. When all eyes were on her—well, not all, but most—she fluffed her crème-collared blouse and began a ramble that ended with a homily. “There were two campers and each wanted to be Camp Captain. Athena had a 4.0 USTA rating and Jane a 5.0. Coach chose Athena, even though she rated second. Coach knew Athena would play Total Tennis.”  Shouts went up, fingers snapped, and the ponytails tossed scrunchies at each other. “Enough now, girls.” She raised her blunted fingers in an evangelical way and the hubbub subsided. “Let us welcome my old classmate and new colleague, Dr. Freydis Erikson, sure to inspire you on the courts and beyond.”

“Thank you, Director Hamilton and student athletes. Feel free to break into my discourse. Q & A lights the learning lamp.” Freydis counted fifteen breaths, then began. “After lunch, I roamed the campus, coming to a bench overlooking the Iowa River. The bench has a dedication: Class of 1922, the year my Great Grandmother Tollefson graduated. A Danish immigrant, she settled in Elk Horn and worked the family farm for 37 years. They were strong as stone.  Grandfather Rune, at age 81, could literally lift an ox. Why?” she asked.

No hands went up. She answered herself. “He ate bovine protein. Meat from beef cattle—

Black Angus—milk and cheese from dairy cattle—Guernseys. The training tables today tilt the wrong way.” She aimed her laser at the black-lettered menu above the cafeteria line:

Turmeric chicken broth with greens

Whole-wheat pasta with pumpkin seed sauce

Banana and OJ.

Junket with nutmeg.

 

“I query,” said the professor. “Why no beef?”

Marina’s hand rotated like a whirligig. She hesitated. “Veggies, like green beans or kidney beans, have lots of protein, right?” She wanted to win over Doc E, after the soap flap. She knew the protein problem—PP, her label.

“Sage, Marina. My Aunt Astrid cooked green beans all day long in boiling water, with a chunk of bacon. Tasty. But they lack a critical amino acid. Beef delivers complete protein, for maximum performance on….” A cluster of teens cross racquets and chime in with an old Charley Pride song: “Burgers and Fries and Cherry Pies.” A row of dressed players, in pleated skirts banded with gold, began to swing and sway. Director Hamilton blew her whistle: three shorts for silence. She proclaimed, “No serious tennis talent practices such a diet,” before her scowl issued a ‘suspension point’ to Professor Erikson.

“Betty Lou, please,” Freydis said, flashing her a peace sign. “My people come from Scandinavia. Bjorn Borg was No.1 in the tennis world, eleven Grand Slam singles. He labeled himself a meat and potatoes man. During tournaments, he consumed burgers and beer.”

“Men are different,” said Betty Lou.

“Of course. Take Martina Navratilova, another world great, with even more Grand Slams. A vegetarian who beats the diet. On Valentine’s Day she wolfed a pear tart with caramel sauce, ice cream and whipped cream—bovine protein.”

“I’m speechless,” answered Director Hamilton, so cowing the students.

“And I am not,” said Freydis. “Dear future champions—Be the Beef.” She radiated out her sculpted arms, gave a slight bow and stepped away. The growing chorus resumed its Charley Pride chant: “Burgers and Fries and Cherry Pies.” Marina, proud camp counselor-to-be, led the professor out.

*

In a worn wooden booth, Freydis and Marina sat across from each other, at George’s. Pad and pencil at the ready, Sadie asked, “What’s you ladies pleasure?”

“Cheeseburger, everything but onion, a bag of Sterzing’s chips, a can of Hamm’s and a pint glass,” ordered Freydis. To Marina, she said, “It’s on me. Thanks for getting me free of Director Hamilton. She’s changed.”

“The same order except a coke,” replied Marina to the wait-staff, mindful of her nineteen years. Turning back to Freydis, she started a sentence. “Professor Erikson, I…”

“No worries,” Freydis cut in. “Try this soap.” She passed her an oval cake. “Smell.”

“Sodium Palmate,” said Marina, rubbing the oval on the tip of her nose.

“Los Poblanos makes it—contains avocado, shea butter, beeswax—and lavender oil. Soaps up swell.”

“Citronellol,” said Marina, taking another inhale.

“You have a nimble nose. A nimble mind. Want to dissect frogs in the Kinesiology lab come fall?” With that, Freydis finished her beer.

“Maybe. For now I want to play a favorite tune on the jukebox.”

“What’s that?”

“Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

“Jimmy Buffet?”

 

—About the Author—

Mike Lewis-Beck writes from Iowa City. He has pieces in American Journal of Poetry, Alexandria Quarterly, Apalachee Review, Aromatica Poetica, Birdseed, Blue Collar Review, Columba, Cortland Review, Chariton Review, Eastern Iowa Review, Ekphrastic Review, Guesthouse, Heavy Feather Review, Inquisitive Eater, Pennine Platform, Pilgrimage, Seminary Ridge Review, Southword, the tiny journal and Wapsipinicon Almanac, among other venues. He has a book of poems, Rural Routes, published by Alexandria Quarterly Press.

Check out his previous story published at AP: “Café Metafoor”!