Jupiter at the River by Erin Schallmoser
Jupiter was born a revelation, a long lanky babe with eyes that shone like sapphires and skin that glowed like the moon and the doctor was worried about a lack of muscle tone and his father sat in the waiting room, clutching his celebratory cigars and tapping his toes. Jupiter’s sisters visited their mother in the hospital room and they patted her hands and went by themselves to gaze at him through the nursery window. They cooed his name over and over Jupiter, Jupiterrr, Juuuuupiter, and the sound of their voices, lilacs and roses floating through the air, was the first thing to get through to his baby brain.
Years later, Jupiter’s sisters go to the laundromat every Saturday, and he tags along, helps tug the baskets of dirty clothes inside, then shoots across the street to the arcade where he always butts up against other young boys, some of them classmates, but no one ever says anything to him, they just push levers, thrust joysticks, punch buttons. Jupiter brings coins he finds at the bottom of his mom’s purse and in between the couch cushions and on the sidewalk during neighborhood walks, exchanges them for tokens, and plays Space Invaders for hours and hours, until his sisters bang on the window, shouting his name Jupiter! Jupiter! and their voices coming through the rippled glass make him feel like a baby again.
One Saturday, a kid named Tommy comes up to Jupiter while he’s in the middle of taking out a slew of aliens. Tommy bops Jupiter’s elbow, messing up his shot. With that, Jupiter’s last cannon is destroyed by alien projectiles and the beep boop beep boop music stops and he’s mad that he will have to start all over but too shy to say anything so he just glares at Tommy. Where’s Mars and Saturn? Tommy says, a boring popular joke referring to Jupiter’s sisters who are not, in fact, named after a planet like he is. Jupiter was born during his mom’s hippy phase, when she was “expanding into the universe.” But she isn’t doing much expanding these days, intent on ironing socks and packing hearty school lunches and making strong cocktails for her and his father while the sun is still out.
Tommy bops Jupiter’s elbow again, says Why don’t you ever talk? and Jupiter’s face is hot and he shrugs, looks at the clock, wonders when his sisters will be done. Jupiter is stupider, Tommy says, and this new joke stings in its not-true-ness. Jupiter wants to ask, stupider than what? but before he can, Tommy guffaws and repeats Jupiter is stupider! Jupiter is stupider! and the other boys drop their own games and come circle around Tommy and Jupiter, the same way they might circle around the TV on a Sunday afternoon to watch their favorite team play football.
Are we going to the river, Tommy? some boy asks and with that, a buzz ripples through the boys like electricity. They all leave the arcade and walk toward the river like a cloud of gnats and Jupiter has no choice but to go with them, even though his mom has said to him, all his life, Do not go to the river. She could be watching TV or playing solitaire or mopping the kitchen floor and she will lock eyes with him and say Jupiter! Do not go to the river. During lunch hour at school, Jupiter goes to the library and reads archived newspaper articles and that’s how he found out that his grandfather died from drowning in the river when his mother was just a little girl. Jupiter never got to meet his grandfather but they have the same middle name and Jupiter is the spitting image of the man in the black and white framed photographs hanging throughout their house.
Jupiter has passed by the river and he’s seen pictures of the river but he has never been right at the river bank, with the long marshy grasses and the squelching mud. But today he follows the tide of boys there because whatever consequence his mom will have for him will not be as bad as what these boys could do if Jupiter were to resist. The river smells musky and it’s loud and rushing and its color is blue scattered with white bits where the current is extra strong and Jupiter stares at it in a revery.
Tommy bops Jupiter’s elbow a third time and just like a charm, as the saying goes, Jupiter finally speaks. What are we doing here anyway? he sneers, doing his best moody impression of Han Solo, and Tommy puts his hands up. Relax! We come to river sometimes and one of us will jump in. Oh, and guess what? It’s your turn today!
Jupiter feels a shiver run through his whole body. Jupiter’s swum in the lake on the other side of town. He’s swum in his cousin’s aboveground swimming pool. He even swam in the ocean when his family went to Bethany Beach last summer. He’s never swum in a river and he doesn’t feel one-hundred percent about today being the day he does, but Tommy is leering at him, saying So? Soooo? and so Jupiter plans to treat each rough white bit of current like an alien invader and take it out with his laser cannon arms and legs and Jupiter plans to be victorious. He takes a few steps backwards and runs as best he can through the sucking mud and right as he launches into the air above the river, he hears his sisters calling JUPITER? JUPITER! and as his long lean moon glow body smacks through the surface of the icy gut-punching water, he squinches his eyes shut and sees his grandfather’s face—or maybe it’s a vision of himself, Jupiter, at the river, as an old man.
Erin Schallmoser (she/her) lives in Bellingham, WA, and delights in moss, slugs, stones, wildflowers, small birds, and the moon, when she can see it. She’s also a poetry/prose editor and staff contributor at The Aurora Journal and is still figuring out Twitter @dialogofadream. You can read more at erinschallmoser.com/.