by John Jeffire
A wall of skin. Late 1960s inner city gym class swimming, most of the boys don’t own suits anyways, the ones who do, don’t wash them, the ones with long hair, most of the white kids, must wear women’s bathing caps. School rules. Vic Ferragamo’s rules. Phil McClintock always holds his penis, like he might lose it or leave it somewhere if he does not clutch it firmly in his bony hands. The bodies shiver, eager to end the lecture and plunge in where the chlorinated brine can hide their nudity.
“…so I’m going to tweak the standards a bit. Who knows what tweak means?”
Eyes dart in every direction. Standing against the opposite wall, muscled legs spread, hands on hips, Mr. Ferragamo rules the pool, the gym, the whole school when he wants. “Mastrianni, what does ‘tweak’ mean?”
Mastrianni, like always, is off in his own world. Even if he was paying attention he hadn’t answered a teacher’s question correctly since he was asked his name in the first grade. His entire head scrunches in perplexion.
“Yes, Mr. Mastrianni, I’m talking to you. ‘Tweak,’ do you know what that means?”
Mastrianni cringes in mortal pain.
“What a bird says?”
Laughter. The natatorium reverberates.
“Knock it off, knock it off. No, Mastrianni, you lugnut. Tweak means I’m going to kind of put my own spin on the Red Cross standards. I will make them harder. If you earn your Red Cross card, you will really earn it, gentlemen. You will be Vic Ferragamo certified, which is a higher honor than the Red Cross could ever give. Are we clear, gentlemen?”
“Yessir,” echoes the natatorium in military unison.
“Now, as I explained last week, our first test will be the two minute leg kick water tread. You will enter the pool and you will not, I repeat, you will not come within five feet of the wall in the deep end. If you so much as touch the wall with the end of your pinky finger, you will be immediately disqualified. You will keep your hands above water, pointing your index fingers to the ceiling, like so. I must see those hands at all times or you will be disqualified. Only the power of your legs will keep you afloat. Does everyone understand?”
“Now, when I blow my whistle, you will have ten seconds to enter the water and situate yourselves. There’s plenty of room here in the deep end. The test will begin immediately on the second whistle. I will notify you of every thirty second increment of time. At the two minute mark, I will blow my whistle again, and you will then be allowed to grab onto the gutters. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who touches those gutters or does not keep his hands above the surface of the water will be eliminated, no questions asked, no argument. Save your whining for your priest, your mullah, your pastor, or your rabbi, because Mr. Vic Ferragamo will not be listening. Are we ready, gentlemen?”
The whistle blows.
The pool erupts into dozens of cannonballs. The water churns with pumping legs and flailing arms. Each boy believes he will pass. He will be Vic Ferragamo certified. To hell with the Red Cross. He will drown to become Vic Ferragamo certified.
The second whistle blows. It’s on. Spindle legs blast away below the water. Hands struggle to stay above the surface. Mouths sputter.
“Walewski, get out of the water before you drown. Yes, you, get out, now, you’re done. Washington, you touched the wall, out of the pool. Don’t give me that look, son, unless you want me to slap it off your face. I said out, now. Thirty seconds….”
The defeated exit the water, nude, worthless. They must stand against the wall, no blindfold. Mr. Ferragamo paces the deck of the pool, driving around the diving board, eyes never leaving the water.
“I better see those hands, gentlemen. Mastrianni, before you do everyone a favor and drown, out of the pool. That’s right, out….”
Only the toughest will make the full two minutes. Mr. Ferragamo now stands where the boys initially plunged into the pool, checking his watch, glaring back into the white-capped pool.
“Who’s bleeding? There’s blood on my deck here. Which one of you turdballs is bleeding on my deck?”
No one can answer—they are consumed in survival, hands above water, feet and knees battling the undertow, swallowing how many gulps of chlorinated slime.
“Jamgogyan, you, you’re bleeding. One thirty, thirty seconds remain. Jam-man, are you cut?”
Jam-man cannot answer. He has 30 seconds. Half a minute to join the gods. Kick, kick, breath, hands up. Kick, kick, don’t stop kicking. Just thirty more seconds.
* * * * *
The boy stands in the gym office looking down at the marbled floor. There are blurry black and white photos on the wall of football players running and tackling and falling down. There is a U.S. Marines calendar and a paddle used for whacking kids, proudly signed by those who have met its sting. In a corner there are some rubber playground balls, one completely deflated, and some badminton rackets. In another, two baseball bats and an unmatched tennis shoe. On a splintery desk sits a photo of a muscled man with a blond woman and two children, one of whom looks like the man, the other like the woman. A football coach’s rain poncho hangs from a rack with some extra keys. The pummeling sound of a class full of bouncing basketballs invades from the gym.
“Okay, Jam-man, you can sit d…well, you better stand. We got you all cleaned, ah, fixed up. You sure you’re okay?”
The boy nods.
“Okay, so, ah, we know something went on, son. There’s been a lot of, of stories going around.”
The boy looks down.
“Now, we know pretty much what happened and we know who did it. Trust me, son, that man won’t be within a ten mile radius of this building so help me God. He’s done. He’s out, and if he so much as looks at this school I will personally hurt him. My promise to you, I will hurt him. Permanently.”
Vice Ferragamo is pointing at the boy. The boy looks to the bats in the corner.
“He won’t hurt you again, son. Do you understand me?”
The boy looks back to the floor.
“Now, we can’t do anything about what’s happened. What’s done is done. I’ve talked with Principal Watkins and he feels there’s no need to make a call home or anything like that. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
The boy shakes his head no.
“I didn’t think so. I know, it’s embarrassing. But let me tell you, no one really knows about this. You’re going to have a two week pass from gym class. If anyone asks I’m just going to tell them that you cut your leg on the edge of one of the short lockers. That a deal?”
The boy shakes his head. He does not want to miss gym class. There is no reason to miss gym class, his favorite part of the day. What will he do when everyone else is playing flag football and swimming and having fun? But he cannot protest. Vic Ferragamo has decided this is best. Whether he thinks so or not, it is best. What’s done is done.
“Okay, why don’t you get back to class. Here, I wrote you a pass. You’re all set. You okay?”
The boy looks up. Something is bothering him. He doesn’t want to make any problems, least of all with Mr. Ferragamo. His father, too, had told him, you make a problem with Vic Ferragamo and you’re on your own. What’s done is done. He is old enough to understand that, but no matter the punishment, he must know.
“The other swim tests? When the two weeks are up, over with, can I still do the other tests and get my Red Cross card?”
* * * * *
A man holds his son in the water just off the beach on Lake St. Clair. No water wings. No support, only his father’s hands. The water is brown and the bottom is lost. There are fish in this water, a lake that stretches all the way to Canada. There is no bottom. The water is brown and the man does not exist below his waist.
“That’s it, just relax. The dead man’s float. Keep your head back, your back straight, fill your lungs up with air. Nothing to be afraid of. I’ve got you. Just let yourself float.”
The boy’s near hand clutches his father’s wrist. His hands lightly support the boy under his back. The father smiles. His son is weightless. There is nothing to him but clean blue eyes and a smile that floods his heart. His son will not be afraid of the water. He’ll learn and he’ll love the water.
“That’s it. Just relax. You’re practically floating now. That’s it. Let go of my wrist, I’m right here, I’m not going anywhere.”
But the man goes someplace. In the strangest times, he finds himself someplace he hasn’t been in years and years. There is a bathroom off a locker room. He can still see it. There is a man, a custodian, a small man, but bigger than all the kids. He can still see him. The truth is murky. Sometimes he sees a naked boy going into the bathroom by himself to pee before swim class and it is another boy, not himself. He sees what happens to that boy, though. He sees everything, but he is not in the bathroom, only somehow able to see everything, up above everything, there and not there at the same time. The small man, whose hair is slicked back, smiles and touches his shoulder. The boy is frozen. This is an adult. Where are the other kids? He will be late to the pool and a man named Mr. Ferragamo will give him three whacks with his paddle for being late. He just wants to pee. He cannot be late. He wants to pee and run to the pool and not be late. He cannot be here.
“Good, good. Okay, I’m going to take my hands away.”
The boy grips back onto his father’s wrist.
“No, no, it’s okay. You’re fine. I won’t let anything happen to you. It’ll be fun. You’ll be like a submarine floating on the ocean. The U.S.S. Jam-Man.”
The boy smiles. He lets go of his father’s wrist. His father’s hands quietly slip away beneath the dark surface. The boy is buoyant in a perfect dead man’s float. The father smiles, his hands ready to catch his son if his faith suddenly falters.