“Prisoner’s Dilemma”: An Excerpt from Cinderland -The Toast

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cinderlandThe summer I turned fourteen, I got caught looking for love on Whore Hill.

It had been four years since the start of Mr. Lotte’s investigation, three years since I made myself forget it ever happened, and over ten years since the steel industry fell and broke everyone’s hearts. In a town full of highways and unemployed mill workers, there was only one way to get out. The kids on the hill saw each other as escape routes, and so the games between us began.

It was the summer of 1995, and it turned out to be the summer of rain. Throughout the month of June, the worst hurricane season in decades slammed the Atlantic Coast with water, the constant downpours a complement to the post-industrial sobriety that had washed over western Pennsylvania. Would-be days of sun and chlorine were supplanted by sluggish hours spent counting the seconds that split lightning from thunder.

The glut of dreary June days sequestered the kids around town to their bedrooms, and collective lethargy set in. Like a propagating yawn, we were suckers for herd behavior. If one member of the herd bolted, we all bolted. If one member stopped to take a piss, we all pissed. Our silent pact was simple:

I. Ain’t. Doin.’ Nothin.’

As the rain fell, securing a backlog of paying work for my father’s small roofing business, the neighborhood kids couldn’t be bothered to leave their own houses. It was as if we’d settled into the crease of a communal couch and couldn’t summon the energy to get up. The pervasion of sloth limited most of our conversations that summer to some derivative of the following:

“Hey,” one of us would say.

“Hey,” the other would answer.

“What are you doing later?”

“Eh. I ain’t doin’ nothin.’ You?”

“Ain’t doin’ nothin.’”

“Ain’t ain’t a word, dumbass.”

When the hurricanes tapered in late June, we re-emerged, slovenly and pale, and swarmed the public pool in Silver Pulley Park. All the regulars (or the “pool rats,” as we were known) came out for the first swimmable day of the summer. I felt damp grass on my feet as the fellow members of my brood and I staked out the highest point of land by the steel fence, a territory the lifeguards had coined “Whore Hill.” A congress of available girls was always in session, though never without a gaggle of boys in tow. Girls in Mercury struggled to befriend each other, except as accomplices in crimes of love. Two binary maxims had been woven into our collective moral fiber: boys would be boys, and girls would be trouble.

We’d grown up learning that the steel industry was our town’s long-dead lover, and we sat in the soot of what had once been a fiery affair. On a map, a cross marked the spot where Route 17, running north to south, impaled Route 44, stretching east to west. This was Mercury: an intersection, a meeting place standing half way between Pittsburgh and Erie. There was iron in the water, coal in the ground. You could hold your breath and drive all the way through town without needing to exhale. At night, the courthouse clock tower in the town square gleamed like a lonely jewel in a rusted crown. On Mercury’s outskirts, Whore Hill overlooked the pool, the parking lot, and the metal jungle gym where kids liked to smoke. Despite the rain, parched grass covered most of the hill. Beneath a peaked sky, my comrades Nora, Jill, Becca and I arranged our towels in a neat row on the rise of the hill. We leaned back, relishing the glint of the meager sun on the tops of our pasty thighs. If I squinted, I could see the distant tree leaves shaking in the wind.

Jill, a math whiz better known for her body’s lusty curves, leafed through the pages of a paperback horror novel. We often traded and discussed these books at length, the plot twists, the evil twins, the red herrings. We dared the books to shock us. Becca switched on a portable radio, and Blind Melon’s distorted guitar notes wafted through the air. The red curls dangling from her pony tail lolled back and forth as she nodded to the music.

“That’s my song,” I said.

“Every song is your song,” someone answered as Becca turned up the volume.

In the far corner of the parking lot, a handful of men spread hot pitch along half of the road that circled the park. These men had once spent their summers dawdling at the pool. That was how it was around here. You were the shit until one day you weren’t. We watched them push a smoking wheelbarrow full of gravel from one end to the other. Their bare backs glistened with sweat like a pop can in the sun as they raked the hot tar into flat lines.

Nora, my closest confidante, handed me a cherry lollipop and I passed her the suntan lotion, SPF 8. We’d been inseparable since my childhood friend Carly and her family had left town three years ago after Mr. Lotte’s investigation ended. It was big news when people left Mercury. “They’ll be back,” people in town liked to say, and often they were proved right. But Carly was gone for good.

Some of Lotte’s other girls—though no one called them that—dispersed through the crowd that day at the pool. Layne Richter laughed with her friends while taking a quiz in a teen magazine. An athlete, Layne was lithe, strong, and fearless. Another girl named Aria Tierney manned the snack shop, which operated out of one of the utility closets. Aria ran it when her older brother Simon left to attend basketball or soccer practice, and she sold ice-cold Milky Ways out of a freezer while an old box fan shot hot gusts of air out the door. I admired Aria from a distance for the same reason I admired Layne. Fear had never led them astray.

Though Nora and I had both taken piano lessons from Mr. Lotte, we’d never spoken of him despite all the other secrets we shared. Speaking his name was a slur against the town, and we knew enough to ration our indiscretions. Slanting back on her towel, Nora swept her black hair into a ponytail as we watched a few boys race toward the water and dive beneath its still surface. Nora’s red bikini was dry, as was my navy one-piece. I’d never gathered the nerve to wear a bikini. I was known around town for what I wouldn’t reveal, especially if someone came searching for it.

The frigid water only tempted brash boys looking to flaunt their cojones for an audience. With our cunning disguised in comatose stares, Nora and I had perfected the appearance of reluctant spectators. Secretly ambitious, we had plans. Plans to make something of ourselves. Plans to get out of this town.

But for the moment, we sighed. We yawned. We tried to appear on the brink of sleep so if a boy happened to drip water on us, we could feign shock. Propped on our elbows with our dazed gazes sheathed in wide sunglasses, we started to shop for boys.

There were two kinds of boys that we browsed from our perch at the top of the hill. The first was the “puppy jock,” a guy who was crisp and athletic, deeply tan with very white teeth. He was a challenge—a little bit out of your league, and that’s how you liked it. He looked like a brightly colored popsicle in his neon swimming trunks, jaunting across the slabs of concrete with his friends. He would take off his shirt in all kinds of weather. While it was true his sense of humor flirted with the idiotic, when winter came he’d wear his lady’s cheerleader pin on his jacket. He wasn’t afraid to tell her he loved her, and she never doubted he meant it.

This was the kind of boy we liked to watch on the high dive, his body arcing with perfection as he leapt from the board, a fine specimen to examine as he penetrated the water. He’d be loyal, not to mention helpful around the house. Should his beloved need to take a trip to Rip’s Sunrise Market, he wouldn’t hesitate to step in and say, “Let me bag your groceries.”

The second kind of guy hanging around the pool didn’t throw his money or his services around. We’d spot him slouching outside the fence or down by the jungle gym, but he never came inside. His accessories: clove cigarettes and a tiny stud earring in his left ear. For lunch, he drank a cold can of Hawaiian punch that no one saw him purchase. He didn’t need to eat. He owned a large selection of metal band t-shirts, every one of them faded black.

These two kinds of boys—separated by an old, rusty fence—never mixed, but the girls volleyed back and forth between them. There were three kinds of girls playing the game around the pool: those who advertised their participation, those who appeared to be oblivious to the game, and those who acted as if they were superior to it.

Around here, a girl could not escape her reputation. Instead, she had to determine what it would be. Prude. Slut. Bitch. Snitch. I preferred the kind of reputation earned for what I didn’t do, rather than what I did. Accordingly, I designed a triad of rules for protection:

  1. No random hook-ups.
  2. No sex.
  3. No second chances.

I tried. In one year’s time: Two rules I would keep, one I would break.


When I was still young enough to think pools were just for swimming and friends were made for keeping, the water seemed worth the fear I once had for it. Back then Carly was still around, and I visited her one afternoon to go swimming in her pool. Floating in an inner tube, I leaned back and felt the sun on my face. I remember thinking I’d found Mercury’s only paradise. Even at seven years old, the summer had a way of making me infatuated with the only home I’d ever known.

Without warning, an unseen force thrust me from the water. The inner tube upended and trapped me beneath it. I heard the water crash and saw the foam of the waves before I went under. Once submerged, everything fell silent. I grasped upward and flailed, but the bulging plastic had me pinned. My eyes started to play tricks on me. Aquamarine spots spread the length of the pool floor, like a leopard’s fur coat.

Supine, I lay there for a minute, not yet drowning. I could see Carly’s tan legs kicking in the distance—but toward me or away from me? There I was, trapped in a paradise-turned-prison, and all I could focus on was the miracle of Carly’s rootlessness in an underwater realm where some things just didn’t float. Her kicking couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. I couldn’t have known then I was looking through a watery crystal ball into her future, into the way her family would have to leave town—on their feet and in a hurry.

I blinked and the sun shot through the water. The inner tube popped up, and I was free. Gasping, I sprang to the surface. Carly’s mother was the first thing I saw at the pool ledge, on hands and knees, her expression fixed with terror. She slumped with relief when she saw me. Her son, two years younger than me but twice my size, had overturned the inner tube and used his own weight to hold me down. “I was just playing,” he said as his mother fished me out. It was the first time I was conscious of being completely overpowered, and I hated it.

After that, my mother committed her summer afternoons to taking my older sister, my younger brother, and me to the Silver Pulley pool where I first caught a glimpse of the older girls on the hill. My mother sat with her paperback book but hardly ever read it, instead prepared to pounce if one of the older bullies started splashing one of her children. That was my mother: vigilant watchtower, faithful companion, the first person I ever loved. When we tried to cajole her into the water, she claimed it had never been quite warm enough in the small Maine town where she grew up for her to get the hang of swimming. Sometimes we’d convince her to slip in a foot, an ankle, or perhaps her torso. Mostly, she contented herself by watching us from the base of the hill, and I’d hang back in the shallow end while Julia and Seth charged ahead, testing the water with my toes.

Years of swimming lessons helped lessen my phobia, but my final showdown with the water occurred when I was ten. I thought it was the day I’d conquer the last of my fears because I didn’t know what was coming. It was the summer right before the rumors about Mr. Lotte started to surface and everything in Mercury changed. That summer afternoon, my father had brought my sister Julia and me to our lesson to see us jump off the diving board. I had yet to attempt it, and I perched on the edge of the board for ten minutes, peering over the lip into the turquoise below.

My father watched us from the top of Whore Hill on the other side of the fence. He leaned against it, his fingers slung against the metal. His skin was a deep tan from all the late afternoons he’d spent roofing that summer. Waiting on the board’s cliff, I stared at him, and then the water. I wanted so much to impress him, this man I loved who wasn’t afraid of anything. When fear overtook me, I crept back toward the ladder and climbed down the rungs. I looked once more at my dad and shook my head, and he waved me toward him.

I ran up the hill to where he waited at the fence. Shielded by a pair of sunglasses and his roofing hat, I couldn’t gauge his expression.

“Why won’t you jump?” he asked.

I slouched. “I’m afraid.”

“Ah,” he said, scratching his forehead with the bill of his hat. “So this is a test.”

“A test?”

“A test. Is fear going to rule you?”

I didn’t answer. My father had a way of cutting to the heart of things.

“Amy,” he said. “You can do this.”

“I can’t.”

He crouched, leveling his eyes with mine. “If you jump off that diving board, I’ll give you fifty dollars.”

“Fifty dollars?”

He nodded. My back straightened. I’d never seen a fifty dollar bill before. The thought enticed me, but not as much as my father did. He had more faith in me than I had in myself, and that was worth more than all the fortune I could imagine.

I turned and ran back to the diving board. My hands shook as I grasped the ladder. Again, I paused at the board’s edge, fear fastening me to it. Is fear going to rule you? my father had asked me. No, I told myself. No. Closing my eyes, I pried one foot from the board. Then I stepped off the edge and fell, splitting open the surface of the water below. When I resurfaced, the sound of my father clapping echoed against the barren hill.

A few days later, my father presented me with a smooth fifty dollar bill. I couldn’t bring myself to spend it. I kept it safe in the back left corner of the desk drawer in the room I shared with my sister. I took it out once every few weeks to look at it before returning the bill to its hiding spot. With time, it crumpled and folded in on itself.

It remained in the drawer for years as Julia and Seth grew bored with going to the pool, and then a few years later, it was still in the drawer when I outgrew my regular trips to the pool as well. It had become a talisman, worth more to me as a possession than a payment. Just a few months after I jumped off the diving board for the first time, I’d lie to the police to save myself from being shunned by the town I loved. There it was—my bravest accomplishment palm-to-palm with what would become my deepest regret.


By three o’clock in the afternoon, the Silver Pulley pool teemed with people. A few boys had plopped their towels around us before tearing down the hill to jump into the water. I watched them splash each other. They cast an occasional glance our way, and we answered with intermittent nods. A few other boys had passed the concrete line, trolling the grassy incline and pawning backrubs. The girls on the hill popped their knees and tossed their hair. They’d circled my troop a few times because we’d scored the prime part of the hill right by the fence. With brown hair and a petite build, I might not have been much of a threat, but I made up for what I lacked in sex appeal with shrewdness: I knew enough to arrive early and claim my territory. One of the blondes eyed us as she ran her fingers beneath the elastic of her bikini bottom: a ceremonial flare of her starting gun. The games were about to begin.

Becca and Jill lay on their stomachs, absently flipping through fashion magazines to disguise their whispers about a few prospects gathered by the high dive. The hopeful back-rubber arrived at our camp, looking optimistic about his chances. Nora decided to bite, and he sidled up behind her. From the concrete, a few female lifeguards eyed us as they played their own standard move—a reproachful headshake chased with a whisper. I could almost make out the words on their lips: w-h-o-r-e-h-i-l-l.

Primed to maintain appearances, we pretended to play for thrill, but much more was at stake. It was our version of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” that story economists use to explain how people are prone to operate in self-interest. Two conspiratorial criminals are kept in separate interrogation rooms, and each is provided an incentive to rat the other out. Silence is the only way to ensure mutual protection, but in the end, the police usually convince them to betray each other. The game becomes about winning, and the path to freedom is blocked by those you call friends. If you want out, you’ll have to railroad your accomplices on your way out the door.

This wasn’t about love. It wasn’t about sex. It was about fear. We had time to burn, yet a subversive sensation warned us that time had already expired. In this town, bad boys were quick to become young fathers, and good boys soldiers. We were aging fast, and we knew it.

At the edge of the pool, a lean, tan boy in orange swim trunks hoisted himself out of the water. I knew who he was. His name was Pete. Athlete. Italian. Smart. A challenge—one year older and a bit out of my league. He caught my eye and puffed out his chest. Chlorinated water dripped from the hem of his trunks. I slipped him a half smile, then yawned. He smiled wide. My cheeks felt hot. He turned, getting a running start before jack-knifing into the water.

I preferred this kind of performance over conversation. The fewer words the better. Too much talking and one of us would betray ourselves. I didn’t dare divulge how afraid I was that I’d never get out of this town. That I’d never get to ride in a limousine. That I’d never get any farther west than Cleveland, Ohio. That I’d never do anything but listen to the merciless sound of time passing away. Tock tock tock tock.

Once I started talking, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. So come on, I’d say to him. Tell me what you know. Show me something. Teach me something. Please. I don’t want to end up pissing my life away. You think we can get out of this town? You got what it takes? Prove it. ‘Cause if I end up working the night shift at Rip’s Sunrise Market when I’m thirty-five and got three kids and a mortgage on a trailer, I swear to God, I will kill myself. So you got what it takes? Prove it. I ain’t got all day, so prove it, Stallion. Prove it.


Excerpted from Cinderlandby Amy Jo Burns (Beacon Press, 2014). Republished with permission of the author.

Amy Jo Burns hails from the land of empty steel mills and four-wheeler accidents, and her memoir Cinderland is out now from Beacon Press. Her essays have appeared in Dame Magazine, Salon, and the Ploughshares blog.

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