Issue 35, Final Fringe

Summer of Newts

by Amy L. Clark Issue 35 06.24.2013

So what I did was I got Calvin to help me make a natural habitat for the newts we had caught out back in the little trickle we called The River. It was a summer of newts–we found a ton of them behind the house. We had three newts in a little plastic terrarium and we had named them Joe, Matilda, and Nate after our three ugliest classmates. Each of them had a leg missing, and I thought it added to their appeal, but when I showed Addie she was concerned there was some pollutant or something in the environment that was making them all deformed. I told her it was probably just battle scars.

I pulled all the houseplants into the second-floor bathroom. There was a fern that had been dying since Addie got me a year ago, and a big standing thing that looked like a palm tree with too much palm and not enough trunk, and some ivies and a couple spider plants. Then I turned the shower on warm and let it steam up the bathroom. It was Calvin’s job to get the newts. When he brought them into the bathroom in the little terrarium we kept in our bedroom, he said the bathroom didn’t remind him a rainforest. He said it looked like I was just going to give the newts a shower. I said I knew what it needed–a forest canopy. So I got Calvin to go to the linen closet in the hall and get me all the dark green towels.

When he came back I realized I needed some way to hang them. “Hey Cal,” I said. “Go get me the hammer and a box of nails.”

“Addie doesn’t have those things,” he said.

“Sure she does. Addie isn’t useless. Look in the garage, in the toolbox near the snow tires.” Sometimes, I thought, as Calvin went off damply to the garage, Calvin’s powers of observation are so strong that he wouldn’t notice if I hit him in the face.

While he was gone, I spent some time staring at the newts trapped behind their plastic, and I was more determined than before to make a real home for them, even if it only lasted for a little while.

When Calvin got back, I had him stand on the toilet and hold the towels up toward the ceiling, since he’s taller than me. “I don’t think we should put nails in the ceiling, Sam,” he said.

“Jesus, Calvin, don’t worry about everything. No one even looks at the ceiling in the bathroom,” I told him.

“But what about the vent?” he asked, after I got him to pound in the first nail.

“You’re not doing it right, the towel should sort of be draped, like the middle part should be hanging,” I said. “The vent doesn’t do anything. I don’t even have the fan on. This is supposed to be a rainforest.”

Between the two of us, Calvin flat-foot on the toilet seat, and me on my toes on the edge of the bathtub, getting wet from the water I didn’t turn off, we got the whole ceiling covered with towels. When we stood back in the doorway to examine our work, it really did look like a rainforest. I could imagine sloths hanging from the shower curtain and frogs in the houseplants. Calvin got that soft-eyed grin on his face like he’d just eaten a cruller or accomplished something good, even though he hadn’t thought it was a good idea. But before I released the newts I wanted it to really be a perfect environment. I decided that a little water wouldn’t hurt the bathroom floor, since it was linoleum. That way, if I sprayed the whole thing down, the newts wouldn’t be confined to wallowing in just the tub. “No way,” Calvin said, but he was leaving to go get a snack from the kitchen when he said it.

Calvin was my foster brother, but it wasn’t the same for him as it was for me. He had been with Addie, our foster mother, since he was five. I had been in six foster families in the last seven years, and I knew that if this one didn’t work out I would end up in a group home.

Calvin knew this too, so he was always trying to talk me out of trouble, or protect me once we were obviously heading right for it. But this time, he said there weren’t enough donuts in the world. “Not enough donuts in the world, Sam,” he said sadly, when I told him I would buy him a Boston Cream if he would take the heat for me this one time. Calvin loved donuts, loved anything sugary and fluffy or doughy. He was a giant of a boy, and I always pictured him traveling in a cloud of confectioner’s sugar. He was also a good kid, and extremely loyal. Calvin would have loved to save me from Addie for even one jelly-filled, but this time I had really done it.

Addie was pretty good, as families go. She let us get our clothes from real stores instead of the Goodwill, and she always made sure we had a lunch to bring to school, and she didn’t make us call her “mom” like some of the other foster ladies I had known. She wasn’t a collector of foster kids, either. It was just Calvin and me there. But she was serious about books, which is why I knew I was going to be in so much trouble this time. Addie had a whole room filled with books. The walls were lined with sagging bookcases, and the overflow was stacked in piles on the floor that had grown so tall the whole place looked like a cave being taken over by stalagmites. I learned about stalagmites in an old geology primer Addie got from the annual library sale. She had books about everything from cosmetology to ancient history, and a whole bunch of other -ologies and -orys I couldn’t even pronounce. And when she got me, I had moved into the bedroom I shared with Calvin to find a bed with sheets and a spare quilt, an empty dresser, and a night table with an alarm clock and a whole stack of books she had prepared for me. “A little bit of everything,” she had said, “until you figure out what you like, now that you’re here.” I had lost A Wrinkle in Time and The Power of One at some point, and flat-out given up on A History of Transcendental Thought. Tristram Shandy had been propping open the window above my bed all summer, but Exploring Our World was where all the trouble started.

It was the third week of summer, and Calvin and I had both finished off the year in Mr. Hobart’s sixth-grade class with a feeling of relief. Addie still had to work all day, and she had asked us, on the first day of summer vacation, “Are you boys old enough to take care of yourselves all day?” I loved Addie, in my own kind of way, but what kind of question is that? We were supposed to not talk to strangers and not leave the neighborhood and not cook things on the stove and not watch television. But other than that, Addie trusted us. I guess she figured it was a pretty small town and there wasn’t too much trouble we could get into. And she was right about the television, there’s only so much Dr. Phil a person can watch before he just wants to break the thing. The first Tuesday of vacation, I bet Calvin my bike he couldn’t eat an entire loaf of Wonder Bread. Addie was suspicious when she came home and the bathroom smelled like bleach from me cleaning up all of Calvin’s soggy puke, and we said we had been feeding the ducks in the park all day. But she was just suspicious and Addie was fair, so her looking at us hard was the worst trouble we had been in so far.

By the third week we were so bored we took to reading. Calvin found some old Babysitters Club books way down in one of the stacks, and we Jenga-ed them out. He’s a slow reader, and he’d been working on Stacey’s Mistake for three days. But in the mornings, I liked to select a new title, take it into the kitchen, steal an inch of vodka from Addie’s supply in the cupboard over the fridge, and read while sipping from a glass loaded with ice. Addie never went into the liquor cabinet, so I was planning to fill the whole bottle back up with water near the end of summer vacation. Exploring Our World detailed all the ecosystems on the planet, and it had these big fold-out maps that were supposed to look like 3-D. I had been reading about rainforests.

With Calvin gone, I was alone in the bathroom with the newts. So I angled the shower head out of the tub and onto the bathmat. Then I pointed it at the walls to get a little drip going. I left it aimed at the floor getting the linoleum a little soaked when I opened the terrarium and reached in for Joe, Matilda and Nate. Right as I was setting them down on the linoleum, I heard Calvin yell.

It turned out that I had forgotten and left the vodka bottle with the cap unscrewed sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. And of course Calvin wanted to fight about it. He was always concerned about rules, even told me that drinking from Addie’s liquor was “typical stupid foster kid stuff.”

“How would you know?” I asked. “You’ve been here forever. You don’t even remember any foster kids other than me.” His comment had been mean and if he were anyone else I would have kicked his ass, but I could never get too angry with Calvin. He’s tougher than he looks, but he still looked as if he’d melt like icing if I hit him. We had it out, though, for a good half hour. And after that he was so pissed he went off behind the house and down toward The River, and I went to sit on Addie’s bed.

Addie was good that way too. She didn’t have parts of the house that were off limits for the kids, like some of the other houses I’d been in. When we were upset she would let us cool off sitting in the dark on the edge of her bed. Her bed was always neatly made, and it had a deep purple blanket on it that was cool and soft. I just sat there in the dark with my fists balled up at my sides staring straight ahead at the blank wall of Addie’s bedroom until my hands unclenched and I could breathe better. I knew Calvin was right. Not just that I should be careful about taking booze, but that getting caught at that would be a good reason to think of me as the trash the kids at school said we were. I closed my eyes and thought of the two boys and the little girl in my last home. They were someone else’s kids now. I took deep breaths and thought I am not like them. I am not like them. We had all been removed from that home for our welfare, but I would rather die that go with a social services caseworker ever again. I could see all my old brothers and sisters like over-bright school photographs on the backs of my eyelids until I fell asleep for a while. When I opened my eyes and looked around at Addie’s bedside table with a stack of books and a half-empty glass of water, and sat up in her huge four-poster, I felt a lot better.

After that is when I realized what had happened while I had been downstairs all this time. I had left the shower running pointed at the floor, and it must have started to leak through the floor, and then down through the ceiling in the room below. It was the library that got most of the water. When I walked into the library and saw what had happened, I didn’t immediately run upstairs and shut the water off, even though that is what my brain was telling me to do. The other part of my brain was imagining the chain of events in slow motion, like if all the water had come from a glacier melting–a slow trickle coming through at first and then a stream and then the planet heating up more and more until the stream became a waterfall. The water was cascading down on top of a particularly high stalagmite of books and spilling over one of the squatter bookcases, too. It had pooled on the floor so that there was about two inches covering the whole library, and it looked like some of the books even higher up in the stacks had gotten wet from maybe capillary action like we learned about in Science with the paper towel experiment. Finally, I unfroze and ran upstairs to turn off the water. The floor in the bathroom really did feel like the ground in the rainforest now, and I couldn’t find the newts anywhere. I had left the door open, so they could have escaped, but I liked to think of them as nestling in the forest canopy or cooling off in a puddle under the claw-foot tub. I liked to think of them as feeling safe and happy and really at home here, in Addie’s bathroom. I realized that there wasn’t even any point to trying to clean the whole mess up and pretend it had never happened when Addie got home.

By the time Calvin got back from The River, I had gone back downstairs again. He found me sitting next to one of the soggy piles of old paperbacks, poking my index finger at the pulpy pages. “Shit, Sam,” he said. Sometimes Calvin knows the exact right thing to say. And even though he told me he couldn’t take the blame for this one, he sat down in the little lake I had made to wait with me until Addie got home and the waters would recede.

Amy L. Clark

Amy L. Clark

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Amy L Clark has had fiction and nonfiction published in literary journals, including Hobart, Juked, Fifth Wednesday, McSweeneys Internet Tendency, and The American Book Review. Her story “All Stop” was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. Her collection Wanting is part of the book A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness (Rose Metal Press).  She is a Writing Specialist for Northeastern University’s Foundation Year program and is the founder and president of the charitable Endowment for Unexceptional Humans. Her online home is, and she is still planning to be a rocket surgeon when she grows up.