DeWitt and I were swimming in his backyard when Elizabeth came over. Elizabeth Perryman, she was a whole different thing. I could tell DeWitt and Elizabeth were just friends because she was so far out of his league. DeWitt and I, all freckles and bird chests. We still wore swimming shorts our moms bought us from JCPenney. Elizabeth Perry wore a sleeveless cutoff shirt, and it was impossible to tell if she wore a swimsuit beneath her clothes, or if it was her bra. She made sure to keep her legs out of the water, sitting at a side angle with her legs pulled up so that DeWitt and I were aware at all times of her contours and the distance between her body and the rest of our female friends.
DeWitt had one of those above ground pools with just a layer of vinyl between the water and the ground. You could feel the grassy clumps of the backyard beneath your feet when you stood in the water. DeWitt’s dad, who had lost the use of his right foot in Vietnam, had once gotten his foot stuck under the brake of their riding lawnmower and rammed the side wall of the pool, ripping a gash. A sheet of water had spread across the backyard and their neighbor’s. But he had put the walls back up and filled it with water, and he had even built a wooden platform alongside of it where Elizabeth Perryman presently sat.
“I’ve got news about someone in your school,” Elizabeth said. “A girl.”
I knew she was going to say something about Becky Tyler. Becky Tyler was the only normal person who would talk to me at Skycrest Baptist. What I had with Becky was something like what DeWitt had with Elizabeth. Becky radiated a kind of sexual disinterest in me – no chance of any romance – but if I was sitting on the side of the parking lot, which doubled as a playground, she would stop and spend the morning with me. At fourteen, it was everything I could hope for. I knew that Elizabeth was going to say that something had happened to Becky. It was my fate to have any semblance of joy taken from me. I could have reached into Elizabeth’s mouth and pulled the words out like some kind of magic trick.
“Becky got expelled,” Elizabeth said. “Somebody said she got caught with a Satanic Bible at school.”
That was the last straw for me. I could not imagine suffering another week at Skycrest Baptist. It was my first year at the school, and the social pickings at the school were slim, heavy on each side with church kids and druggies. The school, a mile from the Scientology headquarters in downtown Clearwater, baked in the Florida sun, heat blasting off the asphalt playground. They kept the classroom doors open to keep you from suffocating to death, as the AC was always blown out. You sweated out your education and returned home five pounds lighter in the afternoon. I should have known that Becky’s time at the school was limited. One day, we were sitting on the parking blocks watching the kids playing four square kick basketballs into traffic, and she said, “You know, I would rather be kind to those who deserve it rather than waste love on ingrates.” Becky Tyler. That was all I needed to hear.
I looked up at Elizabeth. “Are you sure the bible was Satanic?”
“Yeah,” Elizabeth said. “Why else would they kick her out?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe it was a Catholic bible,” I said. “They have extra books in their bible.”
“It wasn’t a Catholic bible,” Elizabeth said, running a stream of hair through her fingers and tucking it behind her ear. “Does a Catholic bible have a pentagram on it?”
“No,” I said.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“I heard they core cows,” DeWitt said.
I dropped under the surface of the water and kicked off the side, darting across the pool, letting the silence cascade over me, and when my fingertips touched the other side, I let myself float to the surface and did the dead man’s float, legs dangling down like a drown wasp. The shape of my lungs seemed to engulf my entire abdomen and blend with the water around me, the sound dissipating until the only thing became a kind of perverted reverberation of vacuum induced warmth, like a dream, or a hallucination in reverse, all red and black and no vision, but vision, too. Yes, vision. I pulled into view a day in the future when I would run into Becky at Denny’s, or the Dunedin Causeway, or the Publix produce aisle, and she would say how glad she was to see me, that life had been such a drag wasting kindness on ingrates. I would mark the spot of our encounter. She should have to return to that spot on another day – it would be part of her pattern of daily life, or weekly life, or yearly life. I would then increase the frequency of my visits to these locations, heighten the chances of more encounters until the encounters were not chance at all, but casual, then routine. Eventually, we would become friends, talk on the phone. Her mind would change about me. Develop. My status would elevate. People would approach me and say, “How’s Becky?”
I wondered, too, drifting in the water, if the teachers had found the Satanic Bible on her person, or had they had caught her in worship? Maybe Becky was bringing in the Satanic Bible to report of the evil among us. A simple example. Did they let her keep the book? Did they give Becky a chance to talk? Did they allow her to defend herself? I doubted it. I decided in my mind that Becky had been railroaded out of Skycrest. Something did not add up.
It occurred to me then, dangling in water space, that there was no real way for either DeWitt or Elizabeth to know if I was purposely doing the dead man’s float or if I had actually drowned. I waited in silence, keeping my body still, even my feet and fingers. I had been under for a time, I knew. I didn’t know how long, but longer than usual, in the beginning stages of the flow state, and not so much as a tap on the shoulder. After a while, it started to get to me, but then the sphere of invisible lung that I hovered inside began to contract, gaining speed until it slipped inside my chest and shrank to the size of a marble, then morphed into intense pressure, ready to explode, sucking in as if my entire system could get ripped inside out. My head bolted out of the water sucking air, my lungs joyous and energized in the thick Florida air. There they were, totally unconcerned, unfazed, yapping away, DeWitt leaning against the side of the pool and Elizabeth sitting on the wooden side deck, her hair long and legs lean, blabbing away this-this and that-that, Becky and her Satanic Bible distant news.
When Elizabeth left, DeWitt and I dried off and sat at the counter bar in his den while his dad made baked beans, stumping around the kitchen with his paralyzed foot, folding molasses into the beans with care and intensity. He stomped his foot, then stomped it again. He did that sometimes, walking around the house stamping and pounding his lame foot into the floor, as if he could hammer some life back into it. He always did it unexpectantly, and the banging sound sent shockwaves into your nerves.
Every once in a while, DeWitt’s dad looked at us and raised his eyebrows as if we had no human understanding of the kindness that he was bestowing upon us. Baked beans. A gift. DeWitt’s dad didn’t make the beans from scratch, but dumped in a can of Bush’s and ‘doctored it up.’ He sprinkled a layer of black pepper, squirted a zig zag of mustard, then went back at it with the pepper until the yellow mustard trails disappeared beneath the black, his mouth tightening with each new shake.
“That’s a lot of pepper,” DeWitt said to his dad.
“This stuff’s going to burn your lips off,” his dad said, keeping at it with the pepper until the entire pan of beans was covered thick as a crust. “You gotta cover the whole thing. Corner to corner.”