The look in Don’s eyes was a combination of agitation and confusion when I sat up, my bare feet smacking the wood plank floor by the bed with a loud clap. Still sprawled in the tangled blankets, his chin and lips were chapped.
My twin bed across the room was neatly made except for my smooshed pillow who had been Glenda in my role play.
Even though the windows were open, the weight of the summer heat had a stranglehold on the room and our bare chests glistened with sweat.
He huffed with more than a hint of remorse, struggling with the sheets before freeing himself and finally sitting up across from me. Even from across the room his odor was like sour milk.
“Peggy looks a bit mangled,” I laughed pointing to his pillow which was half out of the pillowcase. “And a bit naked.”
Practice was needed because neither of us had ever kissed anyone and had no idea if we could do it correctly – if there was, in fact, a correct or incorrect way to do it. The parties in the seventh grade were legendary – make-out melees and we felt it necessary to be prepared. I didn’t find it difficult, because my eyes were shut tightly and was able to imagine my pillow as Glenda. I was able to shrug any anguish associated with our activity.
“It was your idea,” I reminded him as I stood up, relieved by a slight breeze slipping through the window over my clammy back.
He nodded, grimacing as he stood up and rearranged his blue nylon swimming trunks.
And how did we end up role playing with our pillows? A long discussion about Peggy and their relationship – friends since kindergarten and my long distance pining for Glenda began after I made my bed while he still lounged lazily in his. Why he was still in his bed after I had changed into my swimming trunks in the bathroom seemed odd, and while I was ready for a swim he obviously wasn’t, though he had changed into his trunks. That’s the reason I ended up making my bed – in hopes of forcing him up.
It started with “Have you ever kissed a girl?” The question came as I folded the top sheet back and tucked it under my mattress. I wasn’t facing him.
“Not yet. I have done some stripping with girls when I was younger.” I smiled at the memory of their bodies, though there was no touching. “You know - you take off your shirt and I will and on and on. Just dares, you know.”
“Who?” I think I heard a gulp.
“I was living elsewhere. You don’t know them.”
“Let’s go down to the beach,” I suggested as I walked past him out of the bedroom. “I’ll get the Frisbee.”
His glazed dark eyes followed me as though I held the answer, which I didn’t because I wasn’t even sure of his question – though his hesitation made it seem like he had one. In fact, the one question I had was why was he here in the first place? But I didn’t feel like bringing it up at the moment. I turned when I reached the bottom of the wide wooden staircase and peered up. He leaned over the railing, struggling to catch his breath, the bright sun engulfing him in a golden glow as it reflected sharply off the mass of windows of the house that overlooked the lake.
He lagged behind me as we go down the steep cliff over the sturdy wooden stairs I’d helped my father build the previous summer. This oak structure was going to last for decades, replacing some quickly devised planks. His wobbly descent was harrowing and I was thankful we’d put the sturdy structure together. He wouldn’t have been able to navigate the old boards, which was confounding because I knew him as a strong person.
The waves gurgled in harmony strummed by a slight offshore breeze as they rolled lazily onto the beach. The severe afternoon sun reflected vibrantly off the squeaky sand.
He was never one to lag behind so I figured his questions must be slowing him down. That was an assumption because we really didn’t know each other.
I dove into the cool lake headfirst and rushed like a submarine through the sunrays piercing the surface until I finally reached the sandbar and stood up in the waist high water. At the end of the beach the steep cliff of clay was a foreboding wall. It was a scene that was part of my DNA after viewing it countless times from the lake since my parents bought the place when I was in third grade.
From the shore he nervously gazed at the horizon. He was dwarfed by the hulking cliff.
Flipping the Frisbee to his left caused him to dive and make an acrobatic catch before tumbling awkwardly into the shallow water. His reaction was mechanical as he lifted it high above his head like a trophy and I could tell his thoughts were nowhere near the water and that his catch had come from an athlete’s memory – a routine engrained and repeated without forethought and I applauded it in hopes of shaking him from his doldrums.
Don lived up the street from me in a hulking but ragged Victorian on the corner of Walnut and Washington. The roof shingles had warped and looked like ripped pages from books caught in a flood before drying out. Many lay scattered in the balding grass yard in various states of curl, swept off the roof by thunderstorms over the years. He was the oldest of seven children of the only Seventh-day Adventist family I knew. I figured all Seventh-day Adventists had large families and lived in ill-repaired, imposing houses. The other thing I did know for a fact was that he went to church on Saturday which meant he wasn’t available to hang out on the day I was able to hang out, since I was forced to spend my Sunday mornings in the Episcopal Church. I don’t know if that difference had anything to do with it, but up until the previous two months we had been bitter rivals in school and in the neighborhood – both in sports and for girls. Our sixth grade class was in the same building as the middle school. In seventh grade all those from the other elementary schools in town would flow into the large stone building so we either had a leg up by already being there, familiar with the surroundings, or would be considered second class citizens who lived on the side of town that didn’t have the new schools.
I walked past his house each morning on the way to school, unnoticed as far as I knew - until one morning, just a few days before summer break, he called me from his roofed front porch, “Wait up!” Upon catching up he asked breathlessly, “Doing anything this summer?”
Confused, but deciding not to let on, I stated, “Going to the cottage.” I did each summer.
“Yup. Leave the day school lets out and don’t come back until the day before it starts.”
“On Lake Michigan?” he asked as he kicked a rock off the sidewalk.
“Uh huh.” I watched the rock bounce across the thin grass in his yard.
“Yeh, Peggy mentioned that.” Peggy was his girlfriend and she lived two houses down from me. Our parents were part of the same circle of friends. His weren’t.
Later that day in gym class the assigned activity was climbing ropes to the ceiling of the cavernous gymnasium and we ended up being pit against each other. For the first time we bypassed the need to outdo one another, each completing the climb with a suspicious eye on each other to make sure we would reach the ceiling at the same time. He smiled across the rafters at me as our limbs wrapped around the thick rope for survival. It was a moment that came easily as though we’d been friends for years. The excitement of a new friendship often conceals doubts and logic as adrenaline initially drowns reality.
Peggy and Glenda watched us from the bleachers as they awaited their turn on the rope. Gym class was coed until seventh grade when we moved into our own locker rooms and got to shower and take our first step into early adulthood. Glenda was Peggy’s best friend and in my opinion, the prettiest girl in school – blonde curls framing a wide face that was lightly freckled and housed round radiant blue eyes. Because she was that pretty she wasn’t my girlfriend.
We continued hurling the Frisbee back and forth across the frothy waves of Lake Michigan, each leap and magnificent catch of mine was applauded by Glenda in my vivid imagination. I always performed best under the scrutiny of an audience.
Don, on the other hand, was listless and stationary, pitching the Frisbee this way and that as I flew through the air, snatching it with my fingertips before splashing into the warm water.
“Go out,” I yelled, waving him to go long.
He shook his head, gazing emptily into the sun. “No, I’ll pass to you. You seem to be having fun.”
I shrugged. “If that’s what you want.” His attitude had become needy and I figured he wasn’t able to shrug the pillow play, wondering if religion was the catalyst for his behavior. Whatever the problem was, it seemed to be weighing heavily on him. Discovering such differences in our personalities so quickly was unexpected and made me uncomfortable because it had never been an issue with any of my other friends. I felt a bit trapped emotionally and logistically.
I regretted making this quick friendship decision and felt even more of a prisoner because I couldn’t send him home for another three days. The stilted mood was foreign to me. Had any of my other friends acted in such a way I would have inquired openly about the reasons, but I didn’t feel I could do that in this situation. This was a stranger and I wasn’t familiar or comfortable with his customs, which began with his Saturday attendance at church. That, as far as I was concerned, was majorly strange since everyone I knew suffered with me in church on Sundays.
The Frisbee flew between us without another word until my mother called us from atop the cliff to come for lunch. He appeared more energized as we loped over the sand to the bottom of the cliff. Maybe he was hungry, or maybe he was happy to get out of the water – whatever it was seemed to lift his spirits.
Once up the stairs, he took off across the front lawn holding his arm up for a pass, which was mysterious after his refusal to do it in the water. I complied, but the Frisbee sailed too high and floated lazily in the wind, landing softly in the woods bordering our property.
“Don’t worry about it,” I called to him. But he chased it anyway, which I thought odd. Why get all pumped up just as we were going in to eat?
As he leapt over a crumpled barbwire fence just off the edge of the cliff, I held my breath, because all I needed was for him to slip and topple over. I envisioned him bouncing, shoulders caving in as his face scraped the clay cliffs all the way down, and with this thought I took a step toward him, but paused when he darted into the woods, safe from the danger.
“Got it!” he called and I turned to head into the cottage.
At the screen door on the side of the house I was halted by his anguished scream.
Rushing back, I found him crouched on one knee, head bent over, studying his shin, which even from that distance I could tell was cut. I was a bit surprised to see almost no blood and because of that I assumed it to be a minor injury.
“What happened?” I was more than a bit irritated and lacked empathy because he seemed to be exaggerating the incident, pining for attention.
“I caught my shin on the fence.” He had calmed down, though his face was flush and sopped with sweat.
No blood, just a gash clear through to the glaring whiteness of his shinbone. Though only an inch or so deep, it was a disgustingly wide slit that made my stomach churn.
I walked to the trampled section of barbwire where a flap of his skin hung on a rusted barb and flopped in the wind, flickering in the vivid sun. There was no blood there either.
His pale face was emotionless as my father drove us to the hospital. Silent throughout the two hours in the emergency waiting room before we were finally seen by a gray-haired doctor who sewed the cut shut with twelve stitches, and kept shaking his head and saying, “This is very deep.” The tightness of Don’s cheeks and squint of his eyes broadcasted his agony, though he never uttered a word.
Back in our room that night, his groans midst an insistent wind battering the house kept me awake. His thrashing in the sheets was intermittent. Most irritating were the minutes between the groans – the silence just enough for me to fall to sleep before being startled awake.
“Painful?” I mumbled trying to sound empathetic instead of annoyed, though even I wasn’t convinced, so I doubted he was.
“Throbbing. It comes and goes,” he explained. His words slipped through gritted teeth and it was as though he was clenching every muscle in his body to ward off the pain.
I respected his attempt to cover his agony and finally gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he wasn’t trying to get my sympathy and was actually trying to keep as quiet as he could to let me sleep.
“Stupid move,” he groaned.
“Can’t argue with that,” I responded.
He let out a laugh that I returned. The roar of the waves thrashing the shore resonated.
“Peggy will be pissed at me.”
“The fact I have to go home early. She thought it would be good for me to come here – spend time at the beach, swim in the lake.”
“Well you did get in the lake, though it didn’t seem as though you enjoyed it.” The mystery might have an answer. “So she pressed you to ask me to come up here?”
“Kind of. I told her I’d never been to Lake Michigan before. She said everyone should swim in it before they die.”
“Can’t argue with that.” I turned against the wall.
“She was going to ask you, but I told her I could do my own asking.”
“And you did.”
“Are you sorry I asked?”
I hesitated because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “Not really. But I did think it was kinda strange. I mean we aren’t exactly friendly.”
I turned toward his bed, even though I couldn’t make him out in the deep darkness. “Let me ask you something…”
“Has this whole trip been as uncomfortable for you as it has been for me?”
He laughed out loud. “Well I don’t really know how uncomfortable you’ve been, but I can tell you the only time I felt comfortable was when we drove through the woods to the house. I found all the leaves rustling to be relaxing.”
We both laughed.
After the lapping waves took over the room again he coughed slightly then asked, “You are an Episcopalian aren’t you? “
I tensed, trying to come up with a way to repel his attempt to recruit me into his Saturday Sabbath believer’s cult in case that was what he had in mind. “Yep.”
“Do you believe in Heaven – a Heaven that is blissful – a paradise you go when you die?”
“Episcopalians do, yes.” I wasn’t sure myself.
“Huh?” Saturday service and no Heaven; what else was wrong with this religion?
“Oh we go to Heaven when we die, but we are in a state of dead or unconsciousness until Jesus comes back to earth. So the benefits of being there can’t be experienced right away.”
“Interesting.” Bullshit was more like it. “What happens when he comes back?”
“Then we wake in paradise. Able to fully enjoy paradise if we’ve been good during life, but,” he paused before stating the obvious, “He’s been gone a long time.”
I completed Confirmation the year before and that was a statement with which I agreed. He had been gone a long, long time and I for one doubted seriously he was coming back, even if in fact he was who all these religious types claimed. After being confirmed I for a moment felt grown up; which instilled not only pride but excitement which resulted in the gift of a red Bible from my parents.
“I do like the taste of the communion wafers.” I confessed. “But you can have the wine.”
I didn’t want to get into some religious back and forth in the middle of the night. I had pretty much lost interest, if not all belief, which would exit totally years later, so I didn’t feel it right to impose my beliefs on him, but playing the good host, and feeling sorry and a little guilty about his injury, decided I would let him ramble if he so chose.
“And under those terms, that moment of unconsciousness might as well be eternity.” His tone was more resignation than panic.
“Hey whatever the deal with your religion – that death is a long way off.” I turned toward the wall. “And you might be able to answer something for me.”
“Why Saturday? I mean that screws up things for you. If I’m a religious guy and spend Sundays in church and we are close friends we can’t really hang out on weekends, ya know.”
He snickered. “I know. We are called Seventh-Day Adventists – Saturday is the seventh day of the week, hence lock down on Saturdays.”
“What’s so special about Saturday?”
“Actually we start on Friday at Sundown.”
“So shit! Even worse!”
“I know, but when the Seventh-Day Adventists began in 1863, it stemmed from a preacher named Miller who predicted Christ was gonna come back on October 22, 1844.”
“Kinda missed that one, huh?”
“Worse, this guy had predicted Jesus was returning in 1843. So this was his second miss. Well a bunch of his followers who had called themselves Millerites became the Seventh-Day Adventists after he was predicting a third date. They left him but still believed he somewhat right about the October date, but that it was actually that date that Jesus began the last phase of his atoning ministry in a heavenly sanctuary.”
“You guys are even stranger than I thought. Was that day a Saturday?”
There was no response and I soon heard soft snoring. He had worn himself out talking about his religion. I later looked up that day and it turns out it was on a Tuesday.
My father drove him back to the city the next morning, his visit cut short by two days. He responded to my wave with a grim grin.
I heard nothing from him the rest of the summer and by the time seventh grade started our fleeting friendship was finished – ending as quickly and as curiously as it had begun. We existed in parallel realms as though we’d never known each other at all.
In early October he stopped coming to school. I noticed, but since we really had no friends in common, didn’t bother to investigate his absence.
Peggy had become my girlfriend. Her mother was a nurse at the hospital and told her Don had been in the hospital for a week before being released to go home.
“Why?” Hospital normally meant appendicitis or tonsillitis.
“He has leukemia,” she stated sadly.
We walked along for a while before I admitted my ignorance. “What’s that?”
“My mom says it’s a blood disorder.”
I recalled the lack of blood in his cut and the lilywhite piece of skin hanging on the fence barb. “Can you die from it?”
“My mom says it’s likely.”
I sighed as I recalled his lethargy that afternoon. “You know, I always thought it strange how he reached out to me last year.”
We stopped at the front of her house and she looked down sheepishly.
I knew what was coming. I hadn’t let her know he confessed their plan.
“When I mentioned Lake Michigan, because I go up to Saginaw each summer, he seemed so sad when he admitted he’d never even seen the lake. I didn’t know he was sick. So I told him about you spending the summer there and suggested he try and get to be friends with you.”
I nodded. “So he kind of used me, huh?” I smiled, satisfied, now that she confessed her collusion in the plot. It was good to know he told me the truth that last night at the cottage.
She shook her head, “I didn’t tell him to get to be friends with you just so you would ask him up.”
“He did that all on his own.”
She frowned. “Hey, you gave him a gift. Something he wouldn’t have had without you.”
I smiled to myself as I recalled the pillow play, but then thought back to his worries about his religion. I watched her walk up to her front door. Before entering, she turned and called, “You should go see him.”
I walked up the block rehashing our short, odd relationship, just as confused as upset at the news of his illness. His plan hadn’t worked out very well. He hadn’t enjoyed the lake much, recalling his stoic reaction as we threw the Frisbee. I wondered how much of his behavior was his illness and realized he might have known he had it then. Enjoy it or not, he did get to swim in Lake Michigan
His house was even shabbier and the lawn was so overgrown the bald spots were covered. With no siblings playing in the yard, it was eerily quiet.
I rang the doorbell and waited. When no one answered I knocked on the door twice and after a few more moments was about to leave when it opened slowly. His mother’s lips were trembling and twisted. Blinking back tears, she gave me a quick nod. Without a word she closed it slowly, leaving me stranded on the gaping porch. The loud click of the lock resounded around the yawning porch.
My walk home was a mixture of anxiety and annoyance. Our short-lived relationship left me with nothing but questions. I was sad because he hadn’t, for whatever reason, been able to enjoy his visit. Then I realized he had come for more than just a swim in the lake and hoped he had gotten some solace from our discussion that night.
That crinkled barbed wire fence remains and on the odd occasion when I cross it, I always make sure to leap high and long, glancing back at the devious barb.
After so many years his memory lingers illusively. I can’t help but wonder if he is lying in the state of the dead. If the Saturday worshippers happen to have it right, he must be, because Jesus hasn’t graced us with his presence as far as I know.
About the Author
After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states, both east and west, before moving south to the Charlotte NC area . His short stories and poems have appeared in Full of Crow, Potluck, Dirty Chai,The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Five2One, Yellow Chair Review, Shoe Music Press, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine, Brief Wilderness, Anthology: River Tales by Zimbell House Publishing, Foliate Oak Literary Journal,Midway Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Temptation Press Anthology - Private Lessons, Poydras Review and upcoming in The Blue Mountain Review.