In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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The first bends his knees and raises his clasped hands over his head. Aims the slim knife of himself at the water. And leaps.
His body arcs from the floating dock into the sharp, cool air, the wave-cut mountain lake throwing light at him from a dozen different angles. Now his hands part the cold surface, and the water welcomes him, holds him, lifts him in a white-blue rush of effervescence back to the surface, where he blinks and sputters.
“OK, kiddo, that was a good one to end on,” his father calls from the floating dock. “Let’s go.”
The first boy treads water and wipes at his face but doesn’t swim toward the ladder. The custody settlement is final now, which means his father gets him only two Saturdays a month, which means nothing his father says to him matters anymore. The boy always gets to eat his vegetables with ketchup and stay up until the movie is over. Though he is only nine, he understands this better than he understands nearly anything else in his odd, suddenly different world. He understands, too, that this way he treats his father — who tries to plan fun activities for their Saturdays, who brings Marcy along only if the boy says it’s OK — is wrong. But he can’t seem to help it. Something in the taut, hidden workings of his knobby body is rattling and broken. He wonders if it is like this for all boys, or if it is just him. It reminds him of how, when he pulled hard on one of his dad’s old GI Joes, the rubber bands that held the arm on stretched and stretched and finally popped as the limb came off, those black bands snapping back into the dark hollow of Joe’s chest.
“Look at you, kiddo. Your teeth are chattering!”
His father motions him toward the ladder. The boy twists in the water, sees that on the beach Marcy has put down her book and is waving to them from her lounge chair.
“We should head back to the beach, dry off, and warm up. I think Marcy has . . .”
His father keeps talking; his father is always talking. On the way to the lake this morning — glancing in the rearview mirror every few seconds, as if worried the boy might disappear — his father kept going on about some car wreck that had happened when he was in high school, how a kid a few grades above him had drowned when his car went into the lake. The boy didn’t want to hear about it. He doesn’t want to hear any of it anymore. He wants everyone to be quiet, for the sound of mountain water to fill his ears. Though his father’s voice ratchets up in pitch and volume, the boy slips back beneath the surface.
There in the muted deep he opens his eyes — looks up to a pale, sun-shot turquoise, and down to a blue so dark it’s almost black.
When he is at the lake, the second boy pretends. He wades out in his cutoffs, dunks his head, and swims around, and every once in a while he turns back to the beach and waves to no one. He even calls out, “I’m OK!” or, “Just once more?” then falls into the water and splashes and rights himself. Grinning, he trudges back to the gravel beach.
It’s harder to pretend on the beach. The second boy has to sit near — but not too near — some family, so everyone will think he’s with them. But he also has to make the family he’s sitting near think he’s just so intent on digging trenches or filling a bucket with rocks or tossing a faded Nerf football into the air again and again that he has strayed from his own family’s nest of towels and bags and chairs and coolers. In the water it is enough to be in the water, but on the beach he needs to have a place to be. Which is hard to do when you have no place to be.
Today he sits near a woman in a green bikini reading a book. The woman wears a straw sun hat and dark glasses, and every now and again she lowers her book to wave and smile at a man and a boy on the floating dock. She looks too young to be the boy’s mother, though the second boy really isn’t sure. Most women he knows — his aunt, his much-older cousin Starla, the ones at the bar where his uncle drinks — are either mannish and fat or mean and stringy, their faces as weathered as tree bark. But the women at the lake are always young, girlish. They’re up from Portland, Oregon, or Vancouver, Washington; he’s heard them speak the names of those cities that seem to him so far away but really are not. These women fascinate him, with their bright swimsuits and big sunglasses and glossy hair. In fact, they are what convinced him not to just grab the first wallet or purse he found in an unlocked car but to spend the day here, to pretend he is a boy and not, as his uncle says, a man who needs to pull his own weight, who needs to get off his ass, no matter if he is only twelve years old, and make some money.
This woman he is sitting near today is tall, shapely, substantial, the whole length of her laid out and glistening. Her flushed neck and shoulders are bare, and so is the dimpled plane of her belly. And her dark hair is cut short, which makes her seem all the more unclothed. She is so perfect, so shockingly on display that the second boy can’t help but be reminded of the women in his uncle’s magazines. He forgets for a moment the elaborate plastic truck he is playing with — which he nabbed from a hatchback in the parking lot on the way in — forgets that he cannot really be a boy here at the lake, forgets that when he finally hikes back up Nehemiah Creek to the trailer, his uncle will demand an accounting. He forgets all of this and just stares at the woman’s breasts, the cups of green cloth stretched over them.
“Would you like a freeze pop?” she asks, sitting up.
It’s as if someone has snuck up and slammed into him.
“Seriously, we’ve got way more than we need.” She opens the blue cooler next to her and pulls out a handful of popsicles and a crustless sandwich in a bag. “I’ve got plenty of PB&J, too. Would you like one?”
There is something in her voice that reminds him of some of the teachers he’s had over the years, the ones who pay attention. What if she is a teacher — or, worse, a social worker? She swings her legs off the chair and looks at him — and, yes, she sees him: the duct tape wrapped around his right sneaker, his cutoffs held up with twine, the cigarette burns on his ribs.
He bolts. He hears her call to him, but he doesn’t look back to see if she is following. He zigzags across the picnic grounds and through the crowds around the volleyball courts and the horseshoe pits. He breaks into a bank of ferns at the edge of the park, crashes into the woods, and keeps running.
“Whoa! Hey, little man, what’s the rush?” the third boy shouts, sitting up in his lawn chair and righting his tipped-over can of Bud Light. But the boy in the cutoff jeans doesn’t stop.
The third boy shakes spilled beer from his fingers, wipes dust and pine needles from the lip of the can, and takes an exploratory sip. Doesn’t taste like any dirt got in there.
The voices on the volleyball court suddenly grow loud and animated. Jared and Rick have challenged a couple of teenage girls to a game. The girls are cousins; their respective sets of parents glower from a few picnic tables away. Now Jared and Rick are pretending to contest a point, acting all worked up but smiling the whole time. The third boy has been trying not to watch, but there’s nothing else to do. Most of the guys are caught up in the horseshoe playoffs, and he sucks at horseshoes. He wishes he’d brought a book or something.
Two years ago, when he first pledged the fraternity, it was enough just to drink beer and goof around, but not anymore — at least, not for him. He drains his beer — there’s some grit at the bottom — and grabs another from the cooler. “Where do you think that little son of a bitch was going so fast?” he asks Tavin, his freshman-year roommate and newly elected fraternity president, who is surreptitiously snapping pictures of the volleyball game with his cellphone.
“Probably had to take a shit or something.”
“I don’t know, man. The shitters are over by the parking lot. He ran right through here and up into the woods.”
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t have to take a shit.”
“Well, he was running fast. Like someone was after him.” He scans the beach — for what? A guy with a mullet and a switch?
Tavin leans forward and snaps another picture with his phone. “Jesus. That girl almost fell out of her suit. Did you see that?”
The third boy watches the game for a moment, then turns away. Those girls are so skinny, all elbows and knees. “Man, I don’t know. You think they’re even sixteen? It’s a little creepy, right?”
Tavin looks at him, his phone forgotten for a moment. “And you’re not being creepy wondering about some little redneck fucker? Why don’t you run off after him? That’ll set your mind at ease. When you’re done beating off, or whatever it is you do when you think about little boys, you can come back and sit down and pretend you like tits again.” Tavin goes back to taking pictures. “Jesus Christ, man. You fucking baffle me sometimes.”
The third boy tries to take a drink, to wash down the bile rising in his throat, but his hand is shaking so bad he drops his beer can. Slowly, so as not to stumble, he extricates himself from his lawn chair. He shouldn’t have come. He should quit the frat. But who’s he supposed to hang out with then? Where’s he supposed to go? He doesn’t know. He knows only that right now he needs to get to the water.
“Hey, fudge-pack,” Tavin calls after him, “you’re going the wrong way. He ran into the woods, remember? I bet you can still catch him if you hurry!”
The third boy, feeling his eyes grow hot, splashes blindly through the shallows, swims for the floating dock.
Like his father, the fourth boy leans over the picnic table, the points of his elbows grinding into the green-painted wood, a sweating soda can in his right fist. The fourth boy considers the exact angle at which his father’s elbow bends, the way his massive forearms flex, the way his old sea-green tattoo peeks out from beneath his sleeve: a length of ribbon around a heart, Kathy inked across it in cursive lettering. The fourth boy’s mother’s name is Megan. He adjusts his own posture, tries to harden his soft arm and square his sloped shoulders. His mother keeps telling him he’ll hit a growth spurt and lose the baby fat, but he’s nearly thirteen, and he’s seen pictures of his father at his age wearing nothing but overalls and hefting a huge fish, the lines of his shoulders and jaw already straight and clean and sure.
His father raises his can of Schmidt beer and drains it, crushing the empty. The fourth boy lifts his half-full Mountain Dew and tips it back, the fizzing liquid filling his throat — and then chokes and coughs, the greenish soda erupting from his mouth, burning his nose.
“Jesus, Junior, you’re making a goddamn mess.” His father scoots away and scowls. The boy tries to apologize but continues to choke and cough and accidentally knocks over the can, which rolls across the picnic table. His father shakes his head, gets up, and walks away.
Then the fourth boy’s mother is there with paper towels and a bottle of water, and she’s mopping and tsking and squatting down to look into his eyes. “Are you OK, honey? Goodness.” She hugs him, and he smells her warm scent of straw, citrus, and cigarette smoke. “I told you I saw on my show how that Mountain Dew is bad for you. Now you know, huh?” She smiles and brushes his hair from his eyes.
Though he would like nothing more than to sit with her and play a game of hearts, he pulls away. “I’m fine, Mom. Jeez.”
His father, who has grabbed another Schmidt from the cooler, drops back down on the bench, and the boy gets up and fishes through the ice for another Mountain Dew. His mother stands there, the wad of sopping yellow-green paper towels in her hands, and considers the two of them. Then she looks toward the volleyball court, where his older sister and his cousin Tiffani are playing volleyball with some college kids.
The fourth boy’s mother cocks a hip, lights a cigarette. “You going to put a stop to this or what, Frank?” His father doesn’t say anything. “There’s only one thing those boys are after.”
The boy, who knows what she means, feels the heat of embarrassment or shame or something rise in him. Just two years ago he and his sister used to play together all day, tromping through the mossy woods by the steel plant, where at twilight bats swooped and veered through the trees. But now his sister has taken to wearing tight shorts like all the other girls and waiting to be stared at, flirted with, and fussed over, the way those older boys are doing now.
“Frank? Are you listening? She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s only fifteen.”
The fourth boy wishes his father would say something, would get up and march over to the volleyball court. But his father, a powerful man, a man who spends his days casting and hauling pipe at Cascade Steel, just sits there. The fourth boy thinks that if he were as big as his father, he’d get up and drag those girls off the court, stare down those college boys and dare them to make a move. Before he realizes what he is doing, the fourth boy rises to his feet with a sense of purpose he has known only in games of make-believe. His father looks at him. His mother looks at him. The fourth boy sits back down.
His sister misses the ball and giggles. His mother lights another cigarette from the butt end of her last cigarette. His father drinks and scowls.
© Rachel J. Elliott
When his son finally surfaces and swims toward the aluminum ladder, the fifth boy, who is also the father of the first boy, steps across the floating dock, squats down, and sees that the boy’s knuckles are nearly blue. “OK, kiddo, it’s time to take a break,” he says. “You’re freezing. Let’s warm up here on the dock and then swim back to the beach, maybe get something to eat? How does that sound?”
His son climbs onto the dock and stands there, dripping and skinny, his arms pulled tight across his chest, his wet hair making him look even younger than he is. The fifth boy has the urge to take his son in his arms the way he used to before the boy started to resist shows of affection, before the divorce and the custody hearings, before words even mattered and the proximity of bodies said all that needed to be said.
“Here, take a seat,” he says, sitting and patting the dry boards of the dock beside him. “We’ll catch a few rays, warm up, then swim back.”
He waits for a response. He can feel that this might be the day, the hour, the moment his child will slip away from him forever. It’s all come down to this: his son will sit beside him, or he won’t.
“Right here, kiddo. Right here.”
Anvil-shaped clouds crowd the far mountains.
“Come on. You’re shivering.”
Waves slap unevenly against the floats, and the dock shifts and rocks as a hefty college boy clambers up the ladder.
Something isn’t right. The college boy stands there at the edge of the dock, his shoulders trembling, tears streaming down his face. Oh, hell. What is the fifth boy supposed to do now? His son was about to sit down, and now here’s this fat, weeping college kid. He thinks he should say something. It’s just the three of them on the dock, and he’s the adult. But he has no idea what to say — or, rather, he knows what he ought to say, but the words seem inadequate to the task.
“What’s wrong?” his son asks.
“Nothing, kiddo, I’m—” The fifth boy realizes his son isn’t talking to him. Instead his boy is crossing the dock to talk to the chubby college kid.
“It’s nothing,” the older boy manages, wiping at his eyes. He considers the smaller boy a moment. “I guess, you know, someone was mean to me.”
His son nods with a big up-and-down motion. “Yeah, I know. Do you want to dive with me?”
The college boy sniffs and swallows. “Yeah, that sounds great. Is it OK with your dad?”
The fifth boy realizes that he has been holding his breath and now takes a great mouthful of cool, lake-scented air. His scrawny, maddening miracle of a son turns to him.
“Hey, Dad, can I do a couple of dives with my friend? Then we’ll swim back for lunch. I promise.”
“Yeah,” the fifth boy says. “You two go ahead and take a couple of dives.”
And they do.
VI, VII, VIII.
They are not exactly friends, the sixth, seventh, and eighth boys. Or they were, but they aren’t anymore. They live within a few blocks of each other in a suburb of Vancouver and went to the same grade school, but this year two of the boys go to the local junior high, and the other goes to a private school across the river in Portland. They used to collect trading cards and try to rewire old radios and haunt the edges of their subdivision until the sun went down and stay up late talking about UFOs. But all that is behind them.
One of them is trying out for the basketball team. One of them has begun to love algebra, the way multivariable equations unravel. One of them had to stay after school the other day and talk with the teacher about what he’d written in his journal. One of them saves his lawn-mowing money to buy fantasy paperbacks at the bookstore in the mall. One of them put his hand down Elisa Miller’s pants while he was kissing her in the art-room closet. One of them found, in a file cabinet beneath the workbench in the garage, a stash of magazines with pictures of naked men, and he knows they must belong to his father. One of them lives in a four-bedroom, three-bath house on a cul-de-sac. One of them lives in a four-bedroom, three-bath house on a different cul-de-sac. One of them is going to live with his grandparents in Iowa for the summer while his mother and father sort some things out.
Today, though, one boy’s parents — not knowing that the boys are no longer friends, or maybe forgetting about the fraught and shifting world of middle-school friendship — has brought them all here to the lake. And today the differences of adolescence have dissolved into the water, and boys six, seven, and eight are again purely themselves, purely boys.
After a few dives and underwater swims, the boys claim they are going to hike the loop trail around the lake, which will give them some time. A quarter of the way around, the boys bushwhack down to a shady cove, where they light the cigarettes and open the three cans of beer an older brother gave them. The boys cough and suck suds. They rise as one and piss in great arcs into the lake.
The boys hike over to the old power station. They don’t know if trains run on the tracks to the dam anymore or not, but they catch a mess of crickets and tie them to the tracks with fishing line anyway. Then they stand back to admire their work. The crickets jerk and kick, and though each boy inside his own chest feels a tug at his heart, the knot of boys together half grin at the crickets and turn to roam the parking lot, taking up sharp rocks and pulling them across a red car, scarring the paint.
The boys toss the rocks into the weeds and run.
The boys laugh until one of them retches beer and corn chips in the woods.
The boys hunker in the ferns and pass around a pair of binoculars, running them across anything female and then rubbing themselves in ways they think are secret but are not.
Tired, hot, and a little sick, the boys climb the ridge above the lake, a river of monarchs streaming up the rocks, and sit at the top in the heat of the sun, and they don’t look at each other, and they don’t say a word.
The ninth boy is cold. His fingers and toes are cold. His skin is tight with cold. Even his teeth are cold. A shiver passes through him, so violent he feels as if he might fall over, and his mother takes his shoulders in her hands again and hugs him to her. Then she turns him around and points him toward the three boys.
He hasn’t thanked them. He hasn’t said anything yet.
His mother is still crying, though softly now, and since the ninth boy won’t say anything, she thanks the three boys over and over again for pulling him from the lake.
The ninth boy had been in the water at the very edge of the swimming area, where the forest begins. He had invented a story, which is what he likes to do, and in the story he had to spin his body as fast as he could through the water, the shadows and light shifting as he spun out toward the middle of the lake, then back toward the trees and the beach, the stones beneath him slippery and good for spinning.
And then he was underwater. As quick as that. Way under. He must have slid off a submerged ledge or been caught by a current. He didn’t have enough air in his lungs and couldn’t seem to kick his way back to the surface. He wasn’t even sure which way was up. Then he felt something lifting him from below, and a hand around his elbow from above, hauling him into the raw, cool air.
His father has his wallet out and is trying to give the three boys some money, but they won’t take it. His father insists, but the boys shake their heads. They are sunburned and squinting. They look embarrassed, afraid, as if they have done something not heroic but shameful. The ninth boy wants to speak, to tell them they are heroes. He doesn’t speak. One of the boys touches his shoulder, and they walk away.
The tenth boy, the last boy, is the dead boy, the drowned boy, who swims all day in the blackness at the bottom of the lake.
He dwells there in a rusty blue station wagon, the one he drove off the Lewis River Road one night when he was seventeen, sailing some hundred feet into the water. Before he died, he had seldom been afraid. He was the kind of boy who started on the varsity football squad and dated a ponytailed cheerleader, the kind of boy who is at home in his body, in the world. Even as the car fell through the evening air and its nose tipped into the lake and everything went suddenly hard and heavy again — even then he was not afraid. The fear began when he tried to breathe.
He slides now across the mossy rocks, swims just out of sight of the gravel beach. It is lonely at the bottom with the carp, old washing machines and refrigerators, wallets, shoes, hundreds of tires, and trout the size of swine. There are others down here with him — suicides and drunks, the infant, the mother who followed her infant a few days later — but they are all so sad. They wail in the black depths, as they must have wailed upon dry land. He used to wish that his girlfriend had drowned with him. She was in the car, too. They had been happy together. Perhaps they could have been happy here in the lake, as well.
There was a time when he held back and watched the swimmers who began to struggle: the furious kicks, the final paroxysms, the stretched O of the mouth. And then, as they drifted, they would see him. You’re like me, he would say. But they would shake their heads and swim away.
Now he understands. All those years ago, as his father’s station wagon slid through the darkening layers of the lake, he lifted her. He remembers his sure hands on her hips, guiding her through the rolled-down window. He remembers watching her kick away.
He lifted her, and so he must lift the others. He puts his shoulder to the heavy backside of a woman straining to stay afloat, rights a drunk already half drowned in beer, takes hold of a boy’s thin waist and lifts him toward another boy’s outstretched hand.
All day he swims in the shadowy water at the edge of the shallows.
All day he guards the black rocks.
All day with his drowned hands he touches the unbearably warm skin of the living.
In his short story “Boys, Ten in All” [August 2014] Joe Wilkins got men and boys right. The accuracy of his depiction reminded me of Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel.
I was struck by Wilkins’s presentation of maleness as a kind of complex network with a natural logic and inestimable worth of its own. His story deepened my sense of wonder about the world.
“Boys, Ten in All” transports me to scenes from lives that could easily be my own. Though the details are spare, the emotional connection is deep. The story reminds me that we are all children trapped in progressively aging bodies. The beauty, pain, and elation of those early days are still there, just beneath the skin.