They work past midnight. They work past the time scarab June bugs and even Jesus should be asleep, walking behind a rusted, yellow tanker holding modified fire hoses. Instead of pressurized nozzles, they dip mud-flapped deflectors into banked furrows the shape and color of baked pie crusts, watering a thousand dry apple saplings. Their boots and denim bell-bottoms get soaked. The hoses grow heavy, the rows long as a football field. The gap-toothed boy of nine with the stiff knee trips on craggy stones and tire ruts and falls again.
“Hold on!” Karl yells. He’s the boy’s behemoth cousin with the blond Jesus hair, twice as old, and a mouthful of acumen and salt-block teeth. (The boy, fascinated, watched him floss after rib dinner while fitting the roll of blue dental tape between his own incisors.) Now the tanker drones on, a dim spotlight on the loose, slithering hose. Water is going everywhere. “Dad, stop!” Air brakes squeak, hiss, and taillights redden the hot summer air filled with diesel exhaust. “Christ, Alice. You’re flooding the fucking road. Get up and keep up!”
The boy, face down in the mud, is prostrate as a candidate at priestly ordination. He has no reference; he’s never been called Alice. He’s new to the ranch and apple fields. He barely knows the relative strangers in the dark or why he is here. He gets up and continues, shaking with shyness. He tries not to cry. He knows vaguely from religion class that Jesus wept at Gethsemane, when the apostles fell asleep, right before The Savior faced arrest by the high priests. But this garden is bigger than a stone’s throw, and no one is praying or napping on the job. The boy nearly sobs when the hoses spittle and they run out of water on the penultimate row.
“God damn it, Jimmy!” Karl says in an arresting tone, reaching for his nickel-plated sidearm. There’s a hammer cock but no gun shot. The boy knows that name, his name, knows Karl carries in case of rattlers or bucks and wild dogs and jack rabbits that get inside the fences and gnaw on the saplings. “See what you did?”
They pack into the tanker’s cab, Jimmy sandwiched between the men. They drive across the ranch, tires strumming over cattle guards, stuck in second gear – also Jimmy’s fault. His uncle Roy swerves to miss a spotted fawn with a scut and a doe with tapetum eyes – the part that reflects headlights, Jimmy will learn. The truck hits a pothole Jimmy was supposed to have filled in. Jimmy bounces from the hump seat and jams the leg-long stick shift with his good knee.
“Watch it, son” Roy says in an orotund way, hash-mark eyebrows converging. “Didn’t I send you out earlier with a shovel?”
“Guess I missed one.” His lisp is pronounced as he looks at his uncle.
Roy is yeti-big in a lumber shirt and smells ripe. He has lank hair, shorter but darker than Karl’s. Whiskers the color of the mud on Jimmy’s face shadow Roy’s heavy jowl line and oblong ear lobes. An Okie transplant to the Yosemite Mountains, Roy’s pensive and gap-toothed – a sign he’s related, Jimmy thinks. He rubs his good knee, pleased to be called son. Roy lights a Camel, the same brand of cigarette that killed Jimmy’s father.
They park under the flume, the driver-side mirror aligned to the abutment, supporting a rickety trestle laced with spider webs. Losing sight of the low moon and its silver light, Jimmy follows Karl up the hull ladder in the dark. Karl farts and Jimmy nearly falls off.
“Take that, puppy breath,” Karl says.
Jimmy regains his balance, trying not to inhale. He watches Karl shine a flashlight on the submarine-looking hatch, which he opens. Then he opens the valve on the overhead PVC pipe extended from the banked cement ditch carrying water to the town below the mountain. Water gushes as in the time of the Flood. Or like a faucet into a giant bathtub, he thinks. While the hull fills, Jimmy carefully climbs down the ladder, the rungs barnacled with rust and gunk. And fart dust. He gets back in the cab and wipes his hands on his wet pants. He dozes to the sounds of a thousand cascades.
+ + +
They start back, the engine roaring. Jimmy sits up, groggy. Roy works the stuck clutch and shift, grinding out of second gear, to Jimmy’s relief. They gather speed and trail a plume of dust. Headlights jerk up and down the scraped but uneven road lined with burled pines bloated as old men with bellies. The truck enters a clearing. Low-lying loblollies curtsy, then fade away. Jimmy looks out the bug-crusted windshield for eyes shiny as stars in the sage brush. Mother and fawn are nowhere to be seen.
They finish watering the field an hour later, splashing furrows, each its own circular dam. Jimmy accidentally taps and knocks over the last tree with the hose, exposing the lateral roots. He panics and tries to stand the weedy stock.
“Leave it,” Karl says. “I’m too tired.” He shakes his head and turns off the tanker’s water valve. They hook the hoses along the hull, then pile in the cab. Jimmy hangs his head. They drive in sulking silence and again stuck in second gear to the barn, a barn which reminds Jimmy of a lacquered nativity manger with hay bales but no magi, porcelain camels or babe in a wooden crib. Karl lives in the loft. His crib, he tells Jimmy. Converted into an apartment furnished with rifles and magazines – adult (with babes like Farrah Fawcett) and helical – stacked on a stolen bible. Cinder blocks for end tables, spent shotgun shells on the sill, a pyramid of toilet paper rolls in the bathroom. Also, a turntable with a diamond-tip needle and a dual-channel stereo cranked on high. The wooden speakers are taller than the apple trees and Jimmy.
Examining the gear shaft in the barn light, Roy tells Jimmy, “Go on, son. I’ll be a while.”
Jimmy walks up the dirt road to the ranch house, a stone’s throw away. His limp is noticeable under the constellations and the cross hairs of a scope. The air is still, the crickets silent. Then there is a burst, a strafing, of rapid gun fire tearing through a barren fig tree. Bark and leaves intercept the bullets and fly. Jimmy, feeling that the end is near, covers his head and falls.
“You better get down, Alice!” The baleful shout comes from the upper window of the barn as though from a dugout, as though telling him to slide into third. Or take a knee in the end zone. And then like Coach Earl from Little League, Karl says, “Now hit the showers!”
At the house, yanked from a game he does not want to play, Jimmy strips in the garage. He hurries inside, a halfhearted streaker carrying a dirty rosary from his back pocket. He showers, rinsing the rose-wood beads flecked with earth. He then washes the mud from his ears and the clamminess from his thighs which are thick as ham hocks. Around his hairless scrotum, he is careful not to tear the nickel-shaped scabs, covering sores that developed after Jimmy’s birthday weekend with Earl. Hail Mary, Jimmy prays clamantly, please don’t let me be a leper. He dries off, thankful for a spotless towel, and goes to bed. The pillow is soft and comforting. There is only a cool top sheet which seems air-conditioned. He tumbles into sleep.
He wakes up late. It’s hot already, sunlight smotes suspended dust particles through the window blinds. He hopes the men have gone to work without him. He recalls the dream he was having: Was Father George, the priest from Big Brothers back home, handing Jimmy a Roman Collar? Trace memories fade, but his arms are rubbery, sore, and heavy as fire hoses. He’s sore all over and remembers he has to shovel the cote and pigsty while gagging on dung fumes. Skubala, he says – the Greek for shit, and the only cuss word in the New Testament. It’s what Father George said the day he left for Nicaragua. Jimmy wonders if that’s how he felt about the transfer.
The door opens, Karl bursts into the room. “My dad says put on some trunks.”
Jimmy sees him in the slanted dusty light, sees the jumbled Jesus hair, girlish now as Farrah Fawcett’s. Jimmy sees the sidearm in his Speedos and wishes he hadn’t. He wonders how Karl has all his teeth, white as communion hosts.
They drive twenty minutes by narrow, blacktop highway in the rolling hills. Jimmy straddles the pickup’s stick shift, his yellow dividing line, again squeezed between the men. The placid lake appears out of nowhere, blue as Jimmy’s eyes. They back down to the water and launch the lemon-lime Picklefork from the steep cement ramp. The jet boat’s name makes him hungry, makes him think of lunch. He hopes there are chips and turkey sandwiches in the ice chest. But he is suddenly jittery and afraid the squeaky brakes will fail, afraid they will tumble into the shore and drown. Then Roy comes to a full stop. Karl and his gun jump out of the truck.
“Go with your cousin,” Roy tells Jimmy.
Jimmy thinks it sounds biblical: Go with your cousin...
Jimmy gets out and follows. He watches Karl unhook the taillights on the trailer and the tie downs on the cleats and transom.
“Ok,” Karl yells and walks apart as Roy backs into the water. The boat rises from the carpeted slide bunkers. “Stop,” he says and releases the chain on the bow tie. The partially submerged truck and trailer stop, then pull out of the shallows. Water rushes from the tires back to the source. “Come on, Alice.”
Jimmy wades into the lake. The water is clear and warm as a bath. His toes dredge silt. He follows Karl up the two-step stern ladder. Karl farts again.
“Two for two. That’s baseball jargon, isn’t it?”
Jimmy remains quiet, he tries not to breathe. They sit in vinyl seats scalded by the sun, bobbing next to the dock. No one is around; Karl’s fart smells of skubala. The rough dock planks remind Jimmy of the replica outhouse on the ranch where the cut boards around the cool porcelain toilet scrape his butt.
Karl says, “You first, Alice. Maybe you’ll do better at this baptism of fire. Put this on.”
“At what?” Jimmy buckles the orange life jacket. Somehow, he wants it to be a baseball chest protector.
Karl lifts Jimmy above his head like a wrestler on TV. His hands are massive, his fingers need their own speedos. He yanks Jimmy’s shorts, giving him and his scrotum scabs a wedgie.
“Son!” Roy yells, shirtless, returning from the parking lot.
Jimmy doesn’t know which son he’s talking to. But he notices his uncle’s gynecomastia – hairless boobs bigger than Farrah Fawcett’s in Karl’s glossy magazine, the teats of a goat. The jet boat rocks in the water as Roy rolls in from the dock behind the silver-spread eagle-spoke steering wheel meant for a race car.
Roy says, “Stop terrorizing the boy. I told his mother we’d make him a man this summer, not a helicopter. So, don’t hurt him. Besides, we’ve got the exterminator this afternoon and the south field. Throw him in, then throw me a beer.”
Scared, Jimmy almost urinates. (Micturates is the word that splashes in his mind. A word he’s recently heard and, years later when looking back, wishes he had. Right on Karl’s head.) Instead, he pictures Karl propelling him to heaven. The sky is low. Cumulus clouds hover and cartoon step-ladder to principalities, dominions, and Purgatory, which trump furrowing Hell’s apple fields later. The scabbed trees bleed beetle bores like a windrow of biblical pestilence. Karl calls it a field of sticks. Jimmy wonders if it’s the same Styx on the stereo. Lady – could that be Alice?
Karl grunts three overhead presses, then heaves Jimmy into the lake, saying, “That’s for making me miss an hour of sleep!”
Jimmy cries out as though falling from The Revolution, the roller coaster Coach Earl took him to. After splashing down, mouth open, he tastes fresh water but expected ocean brine. When he surfaces, he sees the receding shoreline and rings of clay. Topknot quail flutter and scurry around gnarled oaks. The foothills bake the color of hoarfrost and manna. Jimmy wonders if John the Baptist started this way as laminated woods skiff from the boat, almost decapitating him.
“What do I do now?” he yells, finally peeing and feeling the warm urine trickle in his trunks.
“Put them on like sandals,” Karl says.
John the Baptist was unfit to unfasten the thong of the sandal of the One to come. Jimmy hopes Karl keeps his Speedo-thong fastened.
“Feet in toe slips,” Roy says. A lit cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. Sometimes, Jimmy notices, it hangs from the center, puckered from the edges of his thin lips. Sometimes, it’s wedged between the spaces in his buck teeth, a kind of inverted ashtray, so he doesn’t have to work holding it. Now it teeter-totters with each word. Smoke curlicues the air. “Knees in chest, tips up.” He turns on the motor, the sound of a dragster. Roy steers with a lazy finger, slowly maneuvering the polished boat from the dock. The motor sputters louder than his beer burps. He has a bromide stare, his mind already seems elsewhere, maybe on the apple trees. Then, “And don’t tell your aunt or mother we had libations.”
“Yes, sir,” Jimmy says, unable to settle. His knees are stiff; he’s afraid to test them, and he turns sideways. The skis cross, almost willed to be nailed – a portent Roy raconteurs later at dinner. Jimmy thinks his words are as big as he is.
Karl tosses a hank of rope, one end loop-knotted to the chrome tow ring. It uncoils quick as a rattler and strikes next to Jimmy’s floating head.
“Nearly a ringer,” Roy says and drinks beer.
The thin blue weaved rope is coated with a kind of wax. Jimmy thinks of dental tape.
Karl yells, “Curl the handle like we curl the fire hoses. Unlike the tanker, the boat will pull you up.” He adds, “And don’t put the rope between your teeth.”
“The hell you doing out there?” Roy says. “You’re burning daylight.”
“And gas,” Karl fumes. “Always wasting shit.”
“Hold on,” Jimmy says, trying to get straight and balanced in the water.
“Listos,” he yells.
Roy says, “What are you lisping?”
Roy floors the Sasquatch-mold foot pedal. The jet engine roars horsepower and plumes black smoke. The whitewater trails like rocket exhaust. Jimmy gets yanked sideways and the skis come off. Prostrate, he holds the knurled handle open-eyed and drags through water walls for three first downs or thirty baptisms. He lets go once his eyes start to back out of his head.
The boat circles and returns with a hoisted red caution flag and hooligan laughter. Roy brays, “Jesus, son. Like towing a bug-eyed submarine. You could have let go earlier. Let that be a life lesson. Know when to let go.”
Jimmy nods, not wanting to repeat last night. “I thought my arms would fall off.”
“You’re not a leper,” Karl says. “But you walk like one.”
“I got water in my brain.” His nose gushes snot.
“Nothing gets in that knucklehead,” Karl says. “You kept letting go last night. Almost had to shoot you.”
“You almost did.”
“Not even close. I shot the useless fig tree. Almost spread-eagled it.”
It’s too close to what Earl said in the motel room across the way from the amusement park and The Revolution: “Spread your legs more.”
Marine-style, Roy says, “Adjust the heel locks so your feet fit. Knees and handle in chest, head down, skis up. And keep ‘em straight.”
“Yes, sir.” Jimmy shuts his eyes, shuts out the bad thoughts, and wipes his nose and chin slobbered with snot.
Then he says, “Ready!”
As mechanical equines peal, he feels the sudden pull and tenses up. He rises from the water. Proud, but in disbelief. Popped up like a boner, Karl adds at dinner. Like morning wood.
Avuncular hoots Ooh Rah from the gunwale. There is a cry of, “Way to go, Alice!” From his shotgun seat, Karl draws, flings a beer like skeet, shoots, and spread-eagles the can.
Aluminum glitters hopped foam. The powder blue sky rains suds. Lock-kneed in the stiff wind, Jimmy skids jet bubbles apace, not crossing the wake to the glass surface. He holds on for dear life and keeps up. It’s like skiing on last night’s flooded road – the road he flooded, making everyone wait for sleep before he killed the last tree. (Years later, he will jokingly call this The Flood & Crucifixion at Gethsemane.) For now, he hums Styx: Lady...
After a few minutes, Karl and Roy stop watching. They don’t peer through any cracked side-view mirrors like on the tanker, looking for his next blunder. They settle in cushioned seats covered with wet beach towels, chugging beer, the wind peeling pates.
Already, Jimmy feels the fire in his knee. Two weeks ago at Little League, he struck out swinging on a three-two pitch to end the game and fell in the batter’s box. From the dugout, Earl yelled to hit the showers. When Jimmy didn’t get up and remained on his side clutched in the fetal position, Earl ran out asking, “What did you do?” It was an effusion of hot, bone-crushing pain, of water on the knee. As tenderly as he held him in the hotel room, Earl loaded him in Jimmy’s mother’s station wagon. She drove quickly. At the clinic, they pulled Jimmy’s dirty uniform pants off. The serious-nosed orthopedist donned blue latex like batting gloves and examined Jimmy like ripe fruit. He sponged on a disinfectant that turned brown as skubala. Then he drained piss-yellow synovial fluid from the cantaloupe-size swollen joint with a needle longer than the effing nails used on Jesus Christ. Jimmy thought he was just getting a local anesthetic. From watching M*A*S*H on TV, he knew that meant a shot of some kind. But when he looked, the syringe was left in, the barrel filling up, and the plunger removed. The nurse held a shiny stainless-steel bedpan while the doctor squeezed around the patella. The viscous flow was continuous, the agony too. When it was over, the doctor joked the knee had to pee. Micturates is what he said. He also used aspirates but said he liked the sound of micturates better. Did Jimmy? Then he said Jimmy was done being a baseball catcher and doing all that squatting. Kneeling too, if he was Catholic. But it was a good sign there was no blood; blood meant something was torn. Like a ligament. Still, there was too much fluid that needed testing. Jimmy was glad he didn’t check for what else was torn.
The doctor never called with the results. Jimmy’s fine, his mother said. After he moped in ice packs for a week and was missing Father George who’d left for missionary work, she put him on a plane for the summer with his rosary to an uncle he’d only heard of.
Now, his knee buckles and falters, a hellish burn to the bone. He tries not to make waves but mulls letting go. In the fields, Karl has warned against premature breaks. Ejaculations is what he’s said. But is it time? Is this what Roy is talking about? And will it be like walking on water?
Jimmy proffers the rope handle. The wind, blowing where it wills, seems louder now, coming from all directions, muting the sound of the rocketing boat and the tapping and the slapping of the skis on the water. Jimmy thinks of wearing a Roman collar instead of a life jacket or a chest protector. He closes his bloodshot eyes, spreads his sore arms, and lets go as sunlight limns water-logged lids.
On the third second, he sinks.
Roy and Karl are a home-run distance away and a Hail Mary when they realize Jimmy isn’t behind. He doesn’t mind floating in the vast lake with the water striders and Jesus bugs; it’s a hot summer day. It’s better than shoveling skubala, filling in potholes, digging irrigation ditches, or furrowing dams. The men don’t mind either and keep going a while.
But then Jimmy realizes the wedgie tore his scabs. His sores burn and start to bleed.