He’d swerved foolishly near the bank—and he loved the shouts from the banks almost as much as the feeling of recklessness. He turned barely in time to miss the left bank. Ahead was the bridge that signaled the end of the run where the car on the ditch road, the car pulling the rope, would stop. Before the board lost momentum, Gary tumbled into the chilly water and, with a broad sweep of his arms, propelled himself toward the flat land by the bridge foundation.
The car halted and two boys, clad only in swim trunks, slid out the driver’s door. Tommy stopped to untie the knot around the passenger side doorpost, while Jerry ran through the fringe of brush to the bank and started pulling wet rope and board toward him.
As Gary surfaced—his wind-lashed body numbed and soothed by the water—he laughed for the sheer joy of it. He felt good.
The board caught on the weeds downstream. Jerry cursed, but relaxed and waited for the current to pull it away from the shore. Then he pulled again. When the board snagged a second time he yelled, “Gar—fix the damn board.”
“Shove it,” Gary taunted, even as he swam toward the board. Then, impishly, he caught the rope, yanked Jerry off-balance, and pulled his sputtering cousin into the muddy water.
“Ratzafrenchy!” Jerry screamed.
“Hey, watch it! Ladies present,” As Gary shouted, he stood in the shallow water, dropped his trunks and tucked his penis between his legs.
“Oh, la, la!” Tommy raced down the bank and leaped into the water.
“She’s mine, she’s mine,” Jerry shouted. In mock battle he tackled Tommy’s legs, sending them both sprawling into more mud than water.
When their thrashing slowed, Gary swam to the opposite bank, scrambled through stickers and brush, and ran upstream. Jerry and Tommy raced after him and, as Gary dove into the shallow water, followed him without pause. Gary lead them across the canal, out of the water around the car, down to the bridge and into the water once more.
Finally, out of breath from laughter, Gary stopped, bent nearly doubled, and breathed, just breathed.
Good times like this didn’t happen every day—not any more. Years ago, as kids visiting Grandma’s homestead, they had swam together all the time—and taken their whippings together when a parent caught them in the canal. Back then they could run for miles through sagebush taller than they were without seeing anyone. Losing one another—and then finding them—was part of the fun.
They’d learned to smoke together too—and caught some of that sagebrush on fire. They knew enough to stay and fight the blaze, to say nothing as fathers and uncles finally put the last flame out, and to run like hell once the grownups turned from the smoldering ashes.
They had hidden in the sagebrush, their hearts stopping with every bird call or whisper of wind, until the sun slipped westward, pulling the heat with it. Then, hungry and tired they had chosen to take a whipping rather than spend a cold night in the dark—a hungry cold night at that.
Now that they all had cars to pay for and girl friends and jobs, good times like this were precious.
Later, with board, rope, sand, wet clothes, and tired bodies packed in and around Jerry’s car, they sat, reluctant to let the day end. “Let’s go to my place for a beer,” Jerry said.
“Let’s make that some beer,” Gary said. “Stop at the beverage store on 10th.” They laughed again.
From his place in the back seat, Gary watched Jerry guide the car from the canal road onto the highway, watched him crane his neck from side to side, tighten his hands on the wheel, and turn into the commuter traffic. Funny, he thought, how they all drove alike—fast, with confidence and caution. Probably no one he’d rather ride with than Jerry or Tom. Except when Jerry was drunk–and he wasn’t doing that again.
Gary studied the two smooth-cheeked blonds in the front seat and wondered why he didn’t ever feel he was different. Being Italian and swarthy wasn’t bad but the missing jawbone on the left side was all some people saw of him. Someday he’d get the money to get something done about it. Someday. Tonight, he’d have some beer.