*Cough, Cough* Who’s There?

I wonder if this cough
is the knock on my door,
my Selective Service
“Greetings” letter,
the cold tap on my shoulder,
I’ve been dreading.
Or maybe I’ve been ignoring.
Sure, I’ve been snuffy for weeks,
wheezed this asthma cough and all.

But I’ve had no fever,
no teeth-chattering chills,
little to no contact
with the outside world
save for computer and TV.
And that “little” wore an N95.
Did I not wash my hands enough?
So, what’s your message,
respiratory machine?
Is that you parked in the driveway?

But now I notice the trees
have popped open their little fists
and spilled their pollen,
spreading it like a rumor.
I’d breathe a sigh of relief,
but I’ve heard too many lies lately,
too many messages mixed with bluster
and woe to take everything
I inhale at face value. So
I’ll keep my counsel close and
my inhaler closer.

Sunrise on Beargrass Creek

“Been staring into that dark so long now everything’s moving. When’s sunup?” Cleve Bentley said, turning away from the clearing east of Beargrass Creek.

“S’posed to be a while ago,” said his partner, Israel Keene.

“Then where’s the sun?” Cleve said

“Damned if I know, but keep watching that tree line. Shawnee’ll be coming first light.”

“If there is any. That old hag Ben killed said we’d never see sunrise. She was just tryin’ to scare us, right?”

“She was’,” Israel said.

“Well, Ben sure ain’t gonna see it. I turned around and he was gone.”

“They probably saw the old lady’s hair on his belt and knew he was the one killed her. I’d’a killed him, too.”

“Israel, something is happening out there,” Cleve said.

“Damn, maybe they ain’t waiting.”

“I see one!”

“Settle down. I’ll move around and…”

But Cleve’s rifle flared and spit a slug at the approaching form.

“I got him,” Cleve shouted. “Gotta make sure he’s dead.”

”Wait!” Israel said, but Cleve had already crept away to where he thought he saw someone seconds before.

“Oh Christ! It’s Ben. I gone and killed…” Cleve said just before arrows pierced his ribs.

“Cleve?” Israel whispered. Two bodies lay outlined in something like a promise of day as the moon’s shadow began edging away from the sun.

A Shawnee man also emerged from the new shadows, ensuring his grandmother’s predictions — of an eclipse and the white mens’ fate — with a blow from his warclub.

Sunrise finally had come.

Here’s a 250-word flash fiction piece I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s weekly Thursday Threads feature. I felt the need to do a new story from my old genre, frontier and western.  Had to use the phrase “something is happening.” So I envisioned this scene in 1770s Kentucky. It needs a hell of a lot more character depth, setting description and, oh I don’t know, a plot? But I wrote it, which is a big deal for me these days.

Killer Angels, Better Angels

It’s leaves are near-ochre,
yellowed with age and changes
in weather and geography,
like the pages of memory
I unshelve along with it each year.

I bring it out like a swimsuit
each summer since I found it
on that beach in that place from
that side which did not prevail.
Today, a page fell like a memory.

It tells a tale of the push and pull
of a time when men could be
paid for and sold, or lined up in ranks
to pay their last full measure
of devotion to a cause each held sacred.

As I run my finger down the page,
I am present in my place and time
as I am in theirs, though I smell
the aroma of a musty old book rather than
of Hell’s own sulfur and smoke.

And I am at peace reading of war and death,
vaguely secure that such a conflict
couldn’t again slash my nobly scarred nation.
Then all these men would have given
that last full measure for nothing.

It’d be our most-mortal sin to allow them
to have lived and died in vain, knowing their
new birth of freedom, and government
of the people, by the people, for the people–
all the people – did perish from the earth.

Rambling draft inspired by reading, breathing, feeling, listening to the pages of my old paperback copy of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s fictional narrative of the actual men and events leading up to, within and following the days in July of 1863 we know as the Battle of Gettysburg. I find myself reading more of my Civil War books these days.I love them, but that I feel so viscerally compelled concerns me a little. 

Praying for Rain

“Do you think today will be the day, Pa?” Ephraim Holliday asked his father as the both stared west.

“Eph, I been praying it would be so,” said Ephraim’s father Eleazar. He reached down and gouged out a handful of the dry crust that covered what was supposed to be his cornfield like a scab. He crushed it in his hand and watched as the wind carried it eastward, as if saying, “You should go, too.”

“So you think those clouds gathering out by the mountains might be real rain clouds that’ll come our way?” Ephraim asked, since his father was the most learned man he knew out there on the Colorado prairie.

“I can’t really say just yet, Eph. A farmer’s just at the mercy of nature anywhere he lives. Out here on the shortgrass prairie, where water’s gotten scarce and we have to rely on nature’s own irrigation from the sky, mercy looks like it’s hard to come by,” Eleazar said. “Sometimes a farmer isn’t much more than a gambler, ‘cept the stakes are a whole lot higher than a few Gold Eagles.”

“Heard a man in Sterling say Hell would freeze over before we saw any rain that’d make a damn…oh, sorry…a difference for any dirt farmers out here,” Ephraim said.

“Go,” Eleazar said as placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and turned him back toward the house and barn. Ephraim knew that was his cue to do his morning chores, though they had become less laborious as his father was forced to sell off a few more head of his cattle and a mule just last week to the fellow running the mercantile in Sterling.

“Ephraim, could you fetch me a pail of water, please?” he heard his mother, Cora, call from their house, an unpainted cabin of sod and dry pine his father built with help from the Daley family. They had come west from Illinois with the Hollidays not two years before. They had made a life on the Illinois prairie for generations, according to Mr. Daley.

“Figured to make a go of it somewhere the land was open, free and wasn’t so crowded with lawyers, liars and politicians,” Daley had told his father the day they laid the first lumber.

But the Daley’s hadn’t counted on some Pawnee children who would ride onto their farm from time to time. Fewer of them a week after little Leah Daley got the measles and died. They hadn’t counted on some of the Pawnee boys telling their fathers about the sick little white girl who went to the Creator with the spotted sickness. They hadn’t counted on the Pawnee all catching measles and begin dying and deciding to nip the source of their curse in the bud by burning down the Daley’s place with the Daley’s inside. And then all but a handful of that band of Pawnee just disappeared like they had been caught inside the Daley’s blazing end, which Ephraim’s father said they might as well have.

Eleazar took possession of the seven scattered beeves and two mules the Pawnee hadn’t stolen or killed. Except now they were gone in trade to folks between his place and Sterling.

“Fire’s a terrible thing,” Ephraim said as he hauled a bucket up from the well his father had sunk near a small spring in a copse of trees nearby. The only trees for thirty miles in any direction, Ephraim reckoned. And from the way their shadows had begun to wake up from their western leisure, he also reckoned it was going on nine o’clock or so.

“Pour some of that into the big pot there, Ephraim,” his mother said. “Have you had anything to drink out there?”

“Not yet, Mother. Gotta see to the stock first.”

“If it doesn’t rain soon, you’ll be able to do that with a thimble, I’m afraid,” she said as she hefted the pot onto the hearth.

As Cora brushed back a strand of hair from her face, Ephraim stopped and realized how much his mother had changed in the past two years out here on the edge of the world. The hair she’d pulled back was gray and her eyes had taken on cracks like the ones along the lines of furrows out back.

“I’m going back to work, Mother,” Ephraim said. and the gave her a hug.

“Oh, my. You caught me by surprise, Eph. Almost dropped a plate. What brought that on?”

“Just ‘cause, Mother.”

“Well thank you, Eph. You’ve made my day. Now you better scoot before it gets too hot out there.”

Ephraim left the house and joined his father, who had begun digging a trench to somehow connect one end of his cornfield with the spring.

“Shovel’s right there, Ephraim. Let’s see if we can get another eighty or ninety feet today before your mother shoos you back in the shade,” his father said.

“Clouds are building, Pa. Look at that.”

Eleazar picked his head up from his digging and peered through the shimmering air at the far mountains, where the clouds were indeed rising like heavenly mountains themselves. Only they were beginning to crawl east.

“Hmmph, maybe the mountain’s gonna come to Muhammad today.”

“What? Who?”

“Oh, just something from old saying, Eph. ‘If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.’ Means if one’s will doesn’t prevail, one must submit to an alternative. Like if it won’t rain on our field, then we have to bring rain to the field. Now pick up that shovel, boy and let’s move a mountain,” Eleazar said.

Ephraim grabbed for his shovel, but once more looked at the rising peaks of white and gray and made another little prayer for any rain the Lord saw fit to give the Hollidays.

“Even a thimbleful,” he whispered.

“Ephraim!”

“Yessir, Pa.” And the sound of two deep scraping shovelsful, punctuated by a shallower one, began a chain that lasted through noontime, lunch and until the clouds and sun met somewhere between Ephraim’s labors and the mountains, and when a cool wind brought a chill to the sodden backs of the Holliday men.

While they had labored, the sun had fired morning into a cumulonimbus alloy of power and potential crouching above the eastern Rockies. They looked up at the cloud tops and saw summer had forged an anvil upon which it might clang out sparks and pound down thunderclaps upon the prairies.

“Clouds are getting sorta dark aren’t they, Pa?” Ephraim said.

“Yeah, they actually are. Say you prayers, Eph. This could be the one, just like you asked for this morning,“ Eleazar said.

Out in the distance a jagged rip of white tore down from the sooty bottom of the cloud mass moving swiftly eastward.

“Shhh… Count, Eph. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi… When they finally heard the rumble of thunder, Eleazar said, “I’ll be damned. Twenty miles.”

“How’d you know…?”

“Tell you later. Gather what stock you can into the barn and tell your mother I went to fetch what I can of the cattle. I’ll be back before anything happens. If anything IS gonna happen.”

They both scrambled from the ditch and carried their shovels toward the house, where Eleazar peeled off and saddled and mounted his bay and rode northwest to herd what beeves he could find and drive them nearer the house.

“Mother, did you see? Did you see the lightning? Hear the thunder?” Ephraim said as he rushed through the door.

“Only heard the rumble, Ephraim. Where’s your father?”

“He just went to gather some of the cattle. Said he’d be back directly. I gotta tie down the goats and milk cow and get the horses inside the barn. I’ll be back.”

As he headed outside, Ephraim saw the clouds had become a slate ceiling across the sky and he whispered again another prayer that his family’s farm would no longer thirst for relief from this drought. He jumped when he saw another flash of lightning and counted Mississippis until he heard the thunder, though he didn’t know how his father figured out the distance. Ephraim wondered if the thunder was God’s way of telling him salvation was on its way or only another empty test of faith, a weaving of wind and water with want.

His father was closing the corral just as he finished tethering the stock in the barn. Both Eleazar and his bay mount were panting and slicked with sweat.

“I’ll take care of Red here. You go in and help your mother with the other children,” Eleazar said as he uncinched his saddle and removed the bit from his horse’s mouth. “Scoot, I’ll be right behind you.”

Behind him, Ephraim could hear the wind blowing louder now and a flash of light burst through every gap in the boards of the barn walls. Then before he could get to “One Mississip…” a sound like the Apocalypse exploded all around.

“Is this it, Pa? This must be what we’re waiting for,” he shouted over his shoulder as he ran toward the house. Inside, his baby sister Lucy was wailing in his mother’s embrace and his two-year-old brother Edwin sat on the floor clutching Cora’s leg.

“Is your father back?” she said, fear widening those wear and sun crinkled eyes.

“Yes, Mother. He’s coming right behind…”

“Shut the door, Ephraim,” Cora said. The wind was blowing dust from what remained of a dream all through the front room.

And then came the hammering on the roof.

“Rain, Mother,” Ephraim shouted, which startled the baby even more. The clattering above was so loud, he didn’t hear his father enter, only felt the chill air that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. As he turned, he saw his father standing in the doorway. He was shaking small white balls off his shoulders and hat brim.

“Hail, Cora. Very little rain yet. And that wind’s blowing up something fierce,” Eleazar said, his own eyes projecting something Ephraim had never seen in them before. He’d seen his father angry enough to level a man twice his size. He’d seen him weep over the grave of little sister Susan back in Missouri. He’d seen their joy at Lucy’s birth. But he’d never even thought of the wide and confused look he saw at that moment in his father’s eyes.

“Ephraim, come here,” Eleazar shouted above the din on the roof and the roar of the wind, which, if anything, had grown louder. Eleazar knelt next to Cora and held his boys in front of him, as close to Cora as they could get without usurping little Lucy’s place in her arms.

“Let’s pray now. Let’s pray that we are saved from whatever has beset us out here on the edge of the world. Let’s pray, boys, as the Lord has ordained. “Our Father, which art in Heaven…” And the voices of Cora and her sons carried on with the Lord’s Prayer as Eleazar listened to how the wind had changed. It now reminded him of the trains that ran from Chicago to St. Louis. And he knew Hell had frozen over and his world had just turned upside down.

Outside, something looking like Satan’s tail dropped from the heavens, it’s tip a whirling skein of Colorado dirt, dust and short grass. And as the boys, their eyes tightly closed in prayer, recited “…now and at the hour of our death. For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power…” Satan scooped up their bone-dry souls, when the only sin they had committed was to pray for rain in this little portion of the frontier between his kingdom and the Creator’s.

First story of any length in a long time. A Western, I guess. It was prompted last week by Story A Day’s Julie Duffy, who asked for a solstice story. Then so much hard life fell down on me. So today, I just started writing a summer story. Can’t say if tornadoes his the Colorado prairie in late June or not. For once, I didn’t burn too much time researching as much as I normally do. Didn’t know what might come along to stop my writing and I wasn’t waiting to find out. So here’s a first draft, rough, dust-laden and jumbled as the Hollidays’ farm the day after this Summer Solstice sometime in the 1860s. And, yes, I know most early farmers on Colorado’s Eastern Plains lived in soddies, but I needed something that’d burn and made a racket when rain and hail hit the roof. 😉

The View From the Precipice Through Gray Eyes

As I sit with her sleeping on my chest,
I wonder how her world will be
if she gets the chance to be my age.
Will she ever be able to swim
in a clean lake, hide beneath a dock
where you can clearly see all the way
to the shore from beneath the water?

Will she ever return from a visit
to The Great White North and be greeted
by border protectors who only mildly mistrust her
because she might be hiding duty-free booze
in the trunk, rather than meeting scowling guys
who mistrust everyone coming across
the Rainbow Bridge who have the dark tan
and jet black hair I did at 18?

Will she be free to read, write and speak
about anything, in any manner, for and against,
as I have my whole communicative life?
She makes a wiggle and opens her gray eyes
for a second, sees someone who loves her
holding her close, safe and warm, and I wonder.

Will she one day hold her grandkid and realize
what a special thing we had in this little town,
in her Grandpa’s old big-hug country
I once thought was full of possibilities,
back before the precipitous fall into
a land of Not Anymore?

I’ve always wondered, with both my granddaughters, the blue-eyed and the gray, how the future will be for them. It’s always been windy at the top of this mountain, but these days I worry more than I ever have a rank gust could blow us off.

Going Under

Lately, this same dream comes to me every night. It’s a dream in which I’m treading water in the middle of a vast ocean on a night of the new moon. I rise and fall on the swells of this inky deep that fills the great depression beneath me. I can tell I’ve been in this water a long time because my fingertips are pale prunes and my eyes sting from the tear-like waters that splash my face. Occasionally in my dream, I sense a vessel approaching, but my voice makes not a sound, my words, my cries for help lie stillborn. I am silent, invisible, mere flotsam as far as they can tell. Often, I recognize the passing craft, perhaps as if I launched it myself or I once sailed with it in my younger days of even a great grey ship of the line bearing a USS (insert some President’s name here) on its prow. And as they drift by my silent kicking and stroking that keep my head above the dark void that would consume me, they toss something over the side. I always hope perhaps it’s a life preserver or line with which to haul me free. But it inevitably turns out to be more ballast that snugly tangles around me and smugly seeks to pull me down, down, down below the surface again. Sometimes it succeeds. But I’ve always had sharp teeth and a sense of survival and place to know in which direction to swim for the surface again. Lately, though, I’ve lost my bearings and the weights have dropped upon me all at once in a tangle of knots and cables I can’t seem to chew through. And I’m going down, down, down. The interesting part of all this dream scenario is that I don’t think of the things above, below and all around me in any concrete terms or even ideas. They’re all just vague faces floating around in the darkness that consumes me. It’s all dark clouds, but not in any poetic sense. Almost literally dark clouds is all my brain can conjure. And when I finally find the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to chew on something for a moment, it just gets covered up by all the other things spinning around me. This sounds scary because to me it isn’t scary anymore. It’s nothing. I’ve become nothing along with it. I believe I’ve gone under, disappeared for good this time. I’m alone, and the dark grows darker and I’m exhausted beyond words from the fight, and just as my breath is giving out, I close my eyes and let the nightmare take me. Then, with all hope lost that this dream will ever end, I finally drift off to sleep.

Heaven, From Eleven to Seven

Finally asleep at 1:30,
awakening again around 4:00,
and here I’d hoped
I’d see this affliction no more.
The thoughts that prod me
and keep me from sleep
have changed over the years
yet still tend to seep
out from my heart
and into my mind,
even though I recognize
them now as all of a kind
of confusion, delusion
and hope I can’t reach
from this place on my back
where even experience didn’t teach
me to leaven with sensibility
the gut feelings of sense.
Which is why, after four hours,
I awaken, staggering but intense,
fighting my way through the fog
that comes with this deprivation.
And yet, once again by day’s end,
I’ll lie here in resignation
that I can’t control the world,
you, your future or the past.
Maybe that’s why I toss until
I drop into darkness at last.
Oh, what I wouldn’t give
to nod off by eleven,
awaken around seven,
and worry less about you,
and the sadness you live through.
I’d lay my head on the pillow,
where soon sweet dreams would billow.
In peace, eleven to seven,
knowing that you
are sleeping peacefully, too.
Yeah, that would be heaven.

White Lines, Dark Heart

This cunning minx came
slinking up on me
like a movie villainess
only without the swelling
heartbeat theme music and
sudden silence before she
took me. The air warmed,
like a sultry lover’s breath,
and I thought I saw the car
begin sucking up the dotted
road lines like they
were spaghetti.
Their snaking movement
mesmerized me, simmering me
in their pale-striped pyrexia.
That’s when her hands caressed
my face and things went black.
Somehow, though, I fought off
her womanly wiles before
she could turn up the radio,
then switch it off and
everything went sideways.
This time.

The Occultation

The experts warned of its coming,
but most of us didn’t expect
such darkness until it finally did.
How it cast a Stygian shadow
across the country the likes of which
most of us had never seen.
Well, maybe some old-timers,
but most of them were looking
forward to its arrival anyway.
The golden face we thought we knew
grew darker, as the lunar forces
overcame its careful polish.

Many flocked to be part of the experience,
since such a phenomenon was their goal
left unfulfilled for years.
Others, though, grew more fearful
as the gloomy lunacy spread and shadow
overcame what once provided light
and hope from coast to coast.
Then move or close your eyes,
said some who clamored for this
sea-to-shining-sea anomaly.

But, frightening as they can be,
such triumphs of darkness
over light never last, the forces
of better nature pushing aside
the shadow-maker, bringing our land
back its original sun-bright vision
for those wise enough to turn away
from the eclipse. Of course,
those who gazed so slavishly upon it
had become blind. But they’d lost
their sight to its occultation long
before its shadow fell upon us all.

Up in the Air

Her foot slipped and she started to fall.

Silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, I saw the figure of a girl drop to the pool from the high board.  She hit the water awkwardly with a terrific splash that made me wince.

I did not join the cluster of youngsters at poolside who laughed at her ugly spill.  In fact, I rose from my poolside lounge chair and took a step toward the pool to see if she was okay.  But then I sat back, not quite on the edge of my seat, but nervously nonetheless.  Even on such a hot July Fourth afternoon, I always shivered at the thought of climbing the fifteen rungs to the top of the high board.

The girl swam to the edge of the pool’s diving area and, with what looked like a move as natural as a dolphin’s, kicked up from the water, pulled on the deck edge and twisted into a seated position facing the water.  She sat there for a few seconds and then – not as smoothly as when she was waterborne – climbed to her feet and limped away from the pool directly toward me.  As she approached, I saw she was tall, fair, wearing a two-piece swimsuit and a red welt that spread from outside her right knee, up her torso to her shoulder.  I also noticed her eyes were staring vacantly right through me.

The girl – she was probably eighteen or nineteen – stopped at the lounge chair directly next to mine and reached down for her towel.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Startled, she looked up, straightened and wobbled a bit, her blue eyes wide and suddenly more focused.

“Oh, you scared me.  I didn’t see you sitting there,” she said.

“Sorry, I was just a bit concerned because you took such an awkward fall.”  I couldn’t help but stare at the ever more reddening stain against her skin.

“Eh, it happens,” she replied, shaking the water from her short strawberry blond hair.  At that, the woman teetered a bit and plopped down on her chair.

“Whoo, must’ve hit the water a little harder than I thought,” she grinned.

“Forgive me, but how the hell can you be so nonchalant about what just happened?” I said.  “That thing, that diving board, all high things, scare me to death.  And what just happened to you is one of the reasons they scare me.”

“Oh, I’ve been jumping off the high board since I was eight or nine.  Never really bothered me, but some little shit behind me jumped on his end of the board as was making my approach and my foot slipped.  Tell you what, though, that water stings like hell.”

“I’m sorry, I’m Bill, Bill Thompson,” I said, extending my sunblock-greased hand.

“Hi,” she replied, “I’m Paula.  The hand she extended was wet, sort of mushy, its fingers pruned from their time spent in the pool.

“Can I get you something?  For the dizziness, I mean.  A bottle of water maybe?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just sit here for a few minutes.  Besides, I think I may have just swallowed about a pint of water.  I know I have at least that much in my ears.”  Paula tipped her head down to the left and gently shook it, attempting to drain that ear.

“Ow,” she said and leaned back in the lounge chair.  “Well, that’s one of ‘em.  But I think I’ll wait a few more minutes for everything to stop rocking in front of me before I try the right ear.”

Then she giggled, the lilting laugh of a teenager, maybe even a ‘tween, I thought.  I was surprised by the sound of her laugh, something like human wind chimes, I thought.

“You’re sure you’re gonna be alright then?” I said.

“Oh sure, soon as I feel a little sturdier on my feet, I’ll climb right back up there.  I’ve got no other reason to be here at the park than that pool.”

“You’re not here to see the fireworks tonight?”

“No, I don’t like fireworks.  They make me real nervous.  That’s made for some lonely July Fourths, but I still have a good time flying off the board.  Instead of flying up and exploding, I fly down and splash.  I’m my own sort of firework, I guess.”

“I really admire you in being able to climb back up there,” I said.  “When I was about five my Dad took up me up with him to the top of a diving board just like this.  Then he chucked me off when I wouldn’t jump like he told me to.”

“How terrible,” Paula said, her eyes fully focused for the first time since she got out of the pool.

“Mom thought so, too.  But that’s how my Dad was, Mr. Throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end.  Sometimes it was for the better, said it would make a man out of me.  Other times…”

I shrugged.  “I still have a thing about heights.  You say that you have lonely July Fourths because of your thing with fireworks; I’m that way about skyscrapers, open elevators, airplanes.  That’s why the first spring break I ever went to was last year.  My junior year – that’s of college, Paula.  And I had to drive to Florida the whole way by myself.  Won’t fly.  Nope, can’t do it. Oh, I’ve tried to fight it, but I always get to the top and chicken out.”

“Well,” Paula said, “I can understand how you can be afraid of certain things.  With me and the fireworks, I guess it’s the noise.  I just can’t take the booming.  You should see me during thunderstorms.  I beat my dog to the spot under the bed every time.”

More chiming giggles.

“You’re very nice,” she said.  “Thanks.  Are you here by yourself, too?”

“Yeah, gonna try to work the tan, splash around, maybe meet some friends later for the fireworks show.”

“Oh, the boomers.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well let’s see, it’s sixish now, so you’ve got awhile before dusk.  That means I’ve got that long to get back to the pool before I head for home.”

“Paula,” I said, simultaneous with her blurting, “So, Bill.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“What if I could find a way for you not to be afraid of the noise?  Would you stay and watch the fireworks with me?”

Paula frowned for a second.  Then her faintly freckled face opened up into a grin.

“How are you going to manage that?” she said.

“Um, well, I have an idea.  C’mon, what do you say?”

Paula’s expression changed to something like that of a kid taking a test, leaning toward False, but nagged by the tiny possibility of True.  She looked down, right, left, right, like her mind was searching for an Exit sign.

“C’mon, the colors are so pretty in person. TV can’t do them justice.  Sometimes they actually make pictures against the sky.  They sparkle and then they sink down like somebody drew a picture in colored chalk on a blackboard and then threw some water on it.”

“And this is supposed to make me want to expose myself to explosions? Pretty pictures?”

“Well, maybe not, but keep an open mind, okay?”

“Ohh-kay. But you’ve got to do something for me first.”

I felt a chill on the windless pool deck, where the flags above the pool-house looked melted to their poles by the heat.

“Let me help you get up and off that board,” Paula said. I saw a determined look on her face, but heard a voice that was soft and inviting.

“Maybe you really should go home,” I replied.

Paula giggled again.

I began searching for words, as well as a means, of escape.

“Look,” Paula said, “I started diving when I was seven and ended up diving competitively in high school and now college. I even became a platform diver. Think about doing THAT for the first time. One thing I learned is we all have fears and we all have to start low and work our way up. I’ll have you going off that high board by sundown or my name’s not Paula McDonald.”

“Well, at least I’ve accomplished finding out your full name,” I grinned.

“Then it’s a deal,” Paula said, extending her hand as if to shake on it. I reached out and she pulled me up and off my seat. She led me to one of the low boards, the one on the far side of the pool away from the audience of lounge chairs and too-close observers. However, this low board sported a tail of pushing middle-schoolers and teens.

“So, Bill, here we go,” Paula said as we took the position at the end of the swiftly moving line. “This board is just four feet or so above the water. Here’s where we’ll get your feet, umm, dry…and then wet.”

“I’ve been off a board this high before, Paula, it’s just the tall one that scares me. There, I said it, it scares me.”

“You’re allowed to be scared of something, Bill. I had a coach that told me that there’s no disgrace in being knocked down – or landing on your back. If there’s any disgrace, it’s in not getting back up.”

“Thanks, Coach Lombardi.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”

“Okay, I’m glad you’ve gone off this board before. We’re going to make believe it’s the Big Kahuna this time, though. We’ll do everything here we need to do to get off the high board so you’ll be prepared for later. How’s that?”

“Sure,” I moaned.

“Right, now take your time, try to enjoy the experience,” Paula said. “Remember, for a second after you jump up from the board, you’ll be feeling nothing, just air. It’s this of feeling and hearing nothing that you’ll experience until you feel and hear your entry into the water. That’ll be your explosion, but instead of fireworks, it’ll be, um, well, waterworks. Then, underwater, it’s quiet again. It’s lovely.”

“Yeah, lovely.”

“Remember, Bill, this was sort of your idea, right? Do what I do. I’ll swim to the side and watch. Okay, we’re up in a couple more kids. What I want you to do is walk to the end of the board and feel it sink and bounce a bit. Go with it. Use the bounce to get your butt in the air, out and over the water. Wherever your center of gravity goes, you’re going, too. When you bounce up, jump forward and upwards, stretching your arms out in front of you. Oh, and you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to.”

Paula stepped up to the board and slowly strode to its end, her body matched the sink and rise of the board, just as easily as she was striding across the pool deck. On her last step, the board went down and rose. She coiled her body and then exploded up, out and down into the water, carving a languorous arc above the water to a near-splashless entry into the pool.

She swam to the near side of the pool and looked back at me, a smile of accomplishment, joy, support, something, on her face. I was holding onto the rails on each side of the board. Shoulders tucked tight to my ears, I marched to the end of the board, mistimed the bounce and flipped ass-over-teakettle, splat, onto the water’s surface. For a second, I considered not coming up from underwater, but I broke the surface and swam to the ladder at poolside, where Paula was waiting.

“I think this will take awhile,” she said. “But remember coach’s mantra.”

“Yeah, I tried staying down, but it didn’t work.”

She giggled that giggle again and said, “Let’s go, Bill. It’s still just six thirty.”

For the next hour and a half Paula and I worked on the side and jumped off the low board. After a few mechanically solid dives, she told me that I was ready to fly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“C’mon, Bill. What more do I have to do to get you up there?”

I had to admit, she had gone way beyond her part of the deal. While I stood in line about a half-hour before, I thought of a way for Paula to deal with the fireworks. I was as sure in my plan as she was in hers to help me fly. Except I was sure my plan would work. Her plan, I decided, was painfully flawed. I was the flawed part of the plan.

Stall, William.

“Okay, okay, but tell me one thing,” I said, digging my bare feet into the concrete pool deck as she pulled me toward the ladder to the high board. “Why are you so afraid of the loud sounds. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

She stopped, let go of my arm and stared at me. Hard. Then she took a step back.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Paula said and took another couple of steps toward her towel on the lounge chair.

“Paula,” I called after her. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to do this – IF – I just can’t do this without you. I promise I’ll get up there. Just don’t be upset with me. Please?”

Paula spun and coldly looked at me. “If you must know, I was in a traffic accident, okay? Late night. After a meet. Okay? Need to know more, Bill? How about this? It was icy. Tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the highway ahead of a line of traffic. My coach tried to stop, just like all the other cars. We spun, and then all the other cars started hitting one another, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG. Three teammates and the coach were killed, four others severely injured. Me, not a scratch. That enough to get you going, Bill?”

I felt a chill that was immediately melted by a blast of heated embarrassment from my chest to my forehead.

“God, Paula, I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her arm.

She twisted from my grasp.

“Look, I like you. You’re cute, you’ve got kind eyes, and you helped me when everyone else thought I was some kind of klutz. You didn’t know me – obviously. But you wanted to make sure I was okay. And I don’t think you were doing it just to hit on me. Not that I wouldn’t have let you, you little jerk. But right now I feel like I just wasted a day, in more ways than one, and if you don’t climb that damn ladder and jump off that freaking board, I’m out of here, deal or not.”

What could I do? I mean really? I turned around, walked to the bottom of the ladder, where there were only three divers still diving in the five minutes left before the pool was going to close.

I took one step up, felt the water dripping off the guy above me on the ladder. I looked over at Paula. She was wrapping herself in her towel and putting on her flip-flops.

More steps up. The guy in front of me had reached the top and was standing on the near end of the board while another diver bounced and flew out and down into the water. Paula was stuffing things into her tote bag. She hadn’t looked one time at me.

I pulled myself to the rear edge of the board and stood there, looking out at the whole pool deck, the roof of the pool house, and the orangey-blond top of Paula’s head, which was turned toward the women’s entrance to the locker-room.

The guy ahead of me bounced on the end of the board twice, sending it deeply below where I was standing, so all I could see was his body from the shoulders up. And then, when the board came back up, he would bounce maybe two feet above it and land back on the sandpaper-like end again. He was getting his timing right or just showing off, I guess.

Then he just took off. Beautiful. Yeah, I’ll say it. Like a bird.

And there I was, just as the lifeguard sounded his claxon horn and yelled into his bullhorn that the pool was closing.

“C’mon, pal, last dive,” he said to me.

I looked behind me and there was no one on the ladder. I could easily just climb down. Nobody would have to skinny to the side of the ladder or climb off to let me pass. It wouldn’t be like that time in high school. The last time I tried to dive off the high board. The laughs and remarks were about as big an embarrassment as any I ever felt. Until five minutes before I arrived at the top of the ladder.

I walked toward the end of the board and it really felt just like the low board. Only thing different was that the drop-off on either side was about three times as high. It looked like thirty times to me.

I looked over at Paula and she was about five steps from the locker room door. And then she turned around and looked at me. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me. And her face had a sadness about it. I took a breath, bounced once and lost my balance for a second, but recovered. My heart was beating so hard I knew everyone could hear it above the silence on the pool deck.

“Tonight, buddy, while we’re still young,” the lifeguard boomed. “Now or never.”

I chose never. I turned around and took a step toward the ladder. I saw Paula’s shoulders slump and she turned back to the locker room.

And then I slipped and fell.

She was right. There is this feeling of silence, of nothing, not even the wind. And then there’s the noise of hitting the water, followed by the quiet again. She was so right.

She was also right about it stinging like hell.

I came to the surface just as the lifeguard was climbing off his tower and trotting down to see if I was okay. I’m sure he would have a tough time explaining how the only person in the pool ended up drowned at closing time.

I put my head down and swam for the wall behind me, under the board. That’s when I saw Paula.

“Bill, are you all right?” she asked, her face showing what looked like genuine concern.

I walked right by her, grabbed the handle on the ladder and started climbing.

“Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go. Haven’t you suffered enough?”

The disgrace is in not getting back up, I heard in my head. Yeah, I’d suffered enough. I was determined to suffer no more –- no more disgrace, at least –- today.

“Bill, it’s okay,” I heard Paula say below me.

I got to the top and just jumped off, head-first. I didn’t hesitate and I’m sure I looked like a complete spazz, but I did it — on my terms — just to prove that I could.

But never again.

Later that night, on a blanket over the hood of my car, I looked at Paula’s face glowing red, then green, then yellow in the reflected glare of each aerial bomb. Mostly, though, her face just glowed.

“Bill,” she yelled above the sound of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasting in the headphones on her ears, “it really is very beautiful.”

I had to admit she was right, as I laid back and looked up, almost forgetting my near-failure. I couldn’t shake the idea of the sky as the water’s surface, splashing in a splatter of fire.

A big aerial bomb exploded in a garish flare of pyrotechnic elation. Even I was a little startled this time. It wasn’t the boom of the fireworks, though. It was the touch of Paula’s hand suddenly holding mine.

Yet another flash of colored light split the sky, the biggest yet, as before, it was followed by a second of silence, and then the boom reached me. It was the sound that hit me and it was the concussion of the explosion that washed over Paula. It startled her a bit and she squeezed my hand.

This shocked me. But just for a second.

Then I squeezed back.

So, I thought. Flying.

I found that first sentence somewhere and it intrigued me. The rest of the story just spread like the rings of ripples growing from someone hitting the water from sixteen feet above the surface.