Fiction by Russell Hehn
When I awake from my occasional horror and stare myself down in the mirror of my medicine cabinet, in my underwear, calming my boiling bones with tepid water from the bathroom sink, my mind heads on down Highway 49 where I rode in SUVs and minivans with graham crackers and gummi bears and red dirt ground into the carpet. French fries and marbles rolled around inside the air vents with the must of sweat and Freon. Baseballs and coffee mugs thudded when we took the turn too fast coming off 49 onto Pep’s Point Road.
At the end of Pep’s Point Road was a waterpark—two marine blue waterslides, a gelid swimming hole, a couple pool tables, and arcade games older than most people now living.
The water of Pep’s Point was so cold I have goose bumps writing this.
Our parents would take us to Pep’s Point and set us down at a rickety picnic table etched with summer lovin’s. They would give us Ziploc baggies with soggy sandwiches made the night before and another baggie full of quarters for the arcade games that shocked us if we played them wet.
For all I know our parents would leave. Without saying goodbye and without turning back they would jog through the baking gravel parking lot, narrowly dodging the other parents screeching away on two wheels, to hop in their minivans and SUVs and go live wholly other childless lives for an afternoon. We were left to fend for ourselves.
The water of Pep’s Point was so cold that one risked acute hypothermic shock by easing into it. Going toe by toe, inch by inch, gave the body a chance to protest. Skin shrank. Muscles contracted. Balls ascended. The only solution was to fling one’s self into the water and force the body to adapt.
A deck ran out from the gritty beach into the water. At the end was a swing—a sort of rustic trapeze—always with a line of twenty-or-so children blistering in that toxic ultraviolence waiting for their turn at relief. Kids of all shapes and sizes, all manner of splashes and flails. But the rougher-looking redneck kids, the ones who lived way out in Perry County or near Barrontown and hid pilfered Natty Ice in the water by the spillway, the kind of kids who skipped school to do roofing jobs and who coonhunted by the light of the moon, the kind of kids who had muscles in their arms and sun in their hair and nothing to lose would fling themselves into the air with abandon, whoopin’ and hollerin’, flipping and twisting with a grace of strength you only expect in gymnasts or cologne commercials. And down they’d go splashing, making a show of that simple relief.
The water of Pep’s Point is so cold it’s said that long ago the Choctaw used it in a ritual of perception enhancement. The cold contracts the pupil of the eye to an unnatural smallness and its dilation brings a new breadth of understanding.
I remember the slip of my plump fingers on the aluminum bar, the utter weakness of falling while the swing carried on without me. I remember the shock of the water and the pain of that blistering light, coming up for air in time to see some roofer’s boy sail above me, eclipsing the sun with his arc. I remember buying one of those spring-loaded grip strengthener dealies at Walmart for the express purpose of training my Nintendo fingers to support my pre-pubescent pudginess on that swing.
The water of Pep’s Point is spring-fed and cold as the deepest and loneliest depths of darkest space. So cold in fact that idle bathers, their teeth chattering and their red noses sniveling, actually seek out the lingering warmth of a fresh patch of pee.
The waters of Pep’s Point are so cold that claiming one’s own patch of lingering warm pee is considered a public service announcement.
The water of Pep’s Point was so cold that my nipples would shrivel to the size and hardness of two sensitive little sun-kissed Grape-Nuts. To go down the slide I had to first grab one of the water-logged foam rubber mats that seemed to weigh and measure twice what I did, and lug it up the steep, slick incline. The only way to achieve sufficient speed and purchase was to wrap the mat around me like a sort of torture burrito with the mat rubbing my already-sensitive nipples with every step of my aching calves. Over and over up the hill with the chaffing. Down the serpentine slide and into the lukewarm splashdown pool, repeating this until our legs ached and our nipples burned, though none of us would admit that our nipples burned or our legs ached. We would run back to the swimming area and fling ourselves in nipples first.
The water of Pep’s Point was so cold that Paul Lloyd—Anthony Lloyd’s father who was home every two weeks from offshore—would slip a bottle of Rolling Rock into each mesh pocket of his baggy swim trunks and tie a bottle opener to the drawstring. He would float alone among the paddleboats at the distant end of the swimming area with his thumb in the mouth of the bottle, keeping it hidden below the surface from the lifeguard’s gaze. When one was done, he popped open another secretly submerged, perfectly cool one. He would let the empty bottle fill with water and sink to the muddy depths.
Paul Lloyd never left us.
When this world comes to its inevitable and fiery end. When the oceans boil sulphorous. When toxic algae blooms choke out the last young dolphin. When Mother Earth’s incontinent bowels leech the tepid spume of our inaction into our wishing wells. When my skin begins to melt—I tell myself on those long anxious nights—I will take my boy to Pep’s Point and walk him out onto the end of the deck and take the trapeze with my strong hand and take him in my free arm. And as the reddening day roars down upon us I will take deep breaths until he mimics me at last. Then I’ll hold on tight and rare back and fling us both, for once and for all, into the world’s last coolness.
Russell Hehn is a writer and 9th grade English teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. He is finishing a novel set in rural South Mississippi 500 years in the future that is something like Gilead meets Mad Max: Fury Road. Some of his fiction is in McSweeney’s, the Barcelona Review, Roi Fainéant, and the Museum of Americana.