“Look at this!”
Spittle rests in the corner of the old man’s white pressed lips. In his sudden rage he tosses the hospital bed sheets to the floor. Thick fingers grasp at his scrotum, stretching it so that the skin is a blue spider web of blood vessels.
“Don’t ever let them take your balls. Do you hear me? I let them take mine and what did it fucking get me? It didn’t get me anything! I let them…I let them take them…I’m going to fucking die anyway…no matter what they promise, don’t let them…I’m just going to die.” Unshed tears fill the old man’s eyes. He turns his head away from me and slowly uncurls his clenched fist. The slow drip of morphine marking time while we sit in silence.
He pulls a thick-handled broom from the bed of the rusted truck and hands it to me. Crumpling my brow, I stare at the cracked wood with its few bits of clinging straw.
“You promised to take me hunting today.”
Clayton nods towards something behind me.
I turn to inspect the few panels of wood outlining what was once a single roomed shack. As I study the structure, the old man leans over my shoulder and stretches out one arm, allowing me to sight along his pointed finger. Understanding comes when darting masses of fur catch my eye from the far corner of the shack. The thick wooden handle gripped in my right hand suddenly takes on new meaning.
The old man settles himself onto the tailgate as I stalk towards the rabbits, my makeshift club held high overhead. Each time I draw close I lose my chosen target in a flash of fur, but always just off to one side another appears. Each time I stumble, turning about trying to track the small animals, Clayton’s laughter drives me on. I run a little faster, and swing a little harder. When exhaustion and the weight of defeat keep me from raising my club one last time, I make my way back to the truck, picking my way slowly through the long grass, watching closely where each step is placed, ensuring I have no reason to look up and meet his eyes. With one enormous hand the old man messes my hair, chuckles softly and says only, “Tomorrow.”
The old man looks at me from the doorway, his sparse white hair standing on end, and his bathrobe hanging open. “What are you doing standing out here on the porch where it’s cold? Get inside, boy. You’re going to freeze out there. Who raised you to be so daft?”
“That’s the bathroom,” I tell him. “Why don’t you come back to bed?”
He looks at me without recognition, runs a hand through his hair, and turns to examine the small bathroom. When finally he turns back, his eyes are clouded with doubt. He takes an uncertain step towards the bed, allowing me to reach out and take his frail hand in mine. Giving his hand a reassuring squeeze, I lead him the few short steps to the bed, help him settle in by pulling the sheets up and smoothing down his hair. He stares at the wall, grasping the edge of the sheet with both hands, pulling it tight between his fists.
It’s a struggle to put on the blue flippers. The rubbery material is stiff and stubborn in my small hands. Once I have settled my new gifts on my feet, I look up to find nearly everyone else has moved on without me. Clayton is still there, a colossus at the water’s edge, waiting, wearing a small smile, and watching the others out in the depths. He says nothing as I approach, just reaches out one hand, allowing me to grasp a thick finger.
We start the slow walk out to join the others. The warm water splashes around my knees and then recedes to my ankles as we make our way out to the first sandbar. Twice more we repeat this, the water reaching as high as my nipples and receding to my waist when I stop on the final sandbar. The others are further out. Clayton takes another step forward, pulling slightly on my hand. Usually we wait here – I’ve never moved beyond this point.
I adjust my grip on his finger and take a first hesitant step after him. The water rises to my chin, forcing me to my tiptoes. I discover that in the deep water the extra foot of blue flipper strapped to my foot holds me above the waves. Clayton smiles, gives me a conspiratorial wink, and continues on.
It’s me who pulls Clayton off the next sandbar. My eagerness drives us both further into the unknown. The depths rise up around me. I clutch tighter to his finger when the water splashes at my face. When I have to jump to keep my head above the crest of the waves fear drives me to try and turn back to shore. Each time I sputter Clayton squeezes my hand lightly and pulls me a step further, forcing me to struggle along behind him until the ground begins to rise and we find ourselves on the next sandbar.
We turn to face the shore, ignoring the shouts of the others further out. We stand alone on our sandbar, hand-in- hand, surveying the shore together. It is only in the fading light from a sun half set behind the cabin-lined beach that I can finally see just how far he’s brought me.