I was only in Elba for an hour, but Marky was going to be there all day. He’d gotten sent there for caressing a white woman’s ass after she almost drowned at the bottom of the highest slide in the park you could go down without a tube. I mention her race because Marky thought it was pertinent. “Shit, if it had been Judd Porter who had dragged her ass to shore?” he said, pointing at the sunburned second-string cornerback himself, holding his whistle between his teeth one rotation over, in Hansel & Gretel. “She would have asked for mouth-to-mouth. Huh.”
I was going to be Judd Porter in an hour, wading through ankle deep water, making sure the little kids didn’t shit inside the giant mushrooms or auto-asphyxiate in the rope netting. To the kids in the fake forest I’d probably look like Judd’s hairy shadow, the kind you get just after noon, tall and skinny, barely there. I had the body of a Model UN Master Delegate. Even an hour stacking inner tubes in towers was too much for me. I had to sit on a tube every once in a while, rubbing my arms.
Marky called the tube-stacking station Elba because I called it that. I called it that because one of the books I had to read before Dartmouth in the fall was Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and I’d been doing some Wikipedia research about what happened after.
“She said, I’m a mother of three,” Marky yelled, throwing a tube overhead onto a nearly-completed stack. “She said, I don’t have time to get groped by some… high school kid.” He threw another tube. The stack was now fifteen high, which was about the limit before the whole thing would topple. “But you know she fucking meant Mexican.”
Pamela Niedermeyer had not asked for mouth-to-mouth after nearly drowning in waist-deep water. She had dripped down to the central office and demanded a refund and an apology. She was a young woman roughly the shape and consistency of a tablespoon of cottage cheese. It had occurred to me to ask Marky if it was true, if he had actually cupped her voluminous ass in his hands, but I’d decided against it. It was beside the point.
Marky began another pile in front of me and added to it as the black tubes rolled down the hill from the exits. I’d stacked a few but Marky had a method and all I did, he said, was fuck it up. So I took out the waterlogged copy of The Odyssey that I kept in my drawstring backpack for moments such as this. I was only fifty pages in and had to have the whole thing read by the time I got on a plane for New Hampshire. At this point, no one knew where Odysseus was. Telemachus was on his way to Nestor. I was surrounded by inner tubes, piled up like black onion rings in the sun.
Marky and I had met at New Braunfels Middle, playing basketball. I was ok, a decent passer and a serviceable shooter if I was open or driving to my right. Marky was good. Even at the age of twelve, he had style. He knew how to humiliate an opponent with a crossover, how to lay the ball up so it dropped through the net without seeming to touch it, how to tuck his socks into his Kobes so it looked like he wasn’t wearing any. His family wasn’t any richer than mine but the Muñoz’s seemed to spend more money on Marky’s clothes. Even when we were working at Schlitterbahn for $7.15 an hour, plus discounted chicken fingers, Marky had a striver’s graceful accoutrements: immaculate Reefs, polarized Clubmasters, a fade so tight the water bounced off it. I had Walgreens knockoffs and a pair of flip flops from the lost-and-found. I cut my own hair.
But I was off to college in the fall, and Marky was looking at local work. “When I get my shit together maybe I’ll take some classes at SAC,” he’d said at graduation, which we’d spent high and abstracted, having split a skunky joint in the cab of his white Isuzu Trooper before the ceremony. “Maybe I’ll come up where you are.” He passed me the joint and I burned my fingers on it, and that was the only time we talked about where I was going and where he was staying. He adjusted his tasseled cap in the passenger side mirror and smiled at himself. He was a beautiful boy.
If you think about it, it’s pretty ridiculous that the Treaty of Fontainebleau made Napoleon the ruler of something else. But I guess if your aim was to be the emperor of all of Europe, becoming the king of an island twice the size of New Braunfels, Texas, is something of a step down. A week into Marky’s exile I looked up pictures on my phone, eating day-old French fries in the employee cafeteria. It was hilly and arid-looking, scrubby trees on white cliffs. It looked like Canyon Lake. The water was so blue it looked chlorinated.
Schlitterbahn is a German-themed waterpark laid out like a Bavarian kingdom. You could tell which lifeguards had worked at the park the longest by how blue their swimsuits were: Over time, the chlorine would fade the fabric to a kind of reddish brown. My suit was still very blue. I mostly worked the slides and the lazy river, where from time to time my attention was tested by plainclothes supervisors, timing my shifts between standing and sitting, watching me watch the same families pass in front of me, over and over. Occasionally the bosses floated a dummy named Jerry past the lifeguard stand, head down. If you didn’t blow three whistles and pull Jerry from the water, you could be fired on the spot.
Jerry was an indeterminate gender. Sometimes the dummy wore lifeguard trunks, sometimes a bikini. Once, when I rescued it, I felt the thin string of a thong in my left hand. On that particular occasion my boss, a 24-year-old lifer, forced me to perform CPR. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and an ancient visor as a disguise, and as I pumped the flat chest of the dummy he leaned over me, shouting encouragement and grunting. Beads of sweat fell on the string bikini top and into Jerry’s mouth, which was always open. “You’re not doing it right,” he said in my ear. “You’re not doing it right unless you’re breaking some ribs.”
I thought Marky would quit after the third week in Elba. It was hot there, what with all the sun soaking into the rubber tires, and it smelled like the trash from the dumpsters and grease pits it was next to. But Marky seemed to like it. He’d devised a new system for tube stacking—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that he was the first person to institute a system. Instead of stacking the tubes into swaying towers, he’d constructed a pyramid, fifty tubes by fifty at the base. He proudly showed it to me while one of the groundskeepers, a short girl who still had white marks on her teeth where the braces had been, ferried tubes into the enclosure.
You had to be sixteen to lifeguard, but the park hired kids as young as fourteen to walk around picking up trash. They wore blue polos and hung out by the dumpsters, smoking butts. Marky had them stacking pyramids for him, running to the concession stands for frozen lemonade. They laughed at his jokes. He sat in a tube watching them work and once an hour, sweated through some tosses himself. He worked on his tan at the top of the pyramid.
Now we stood in its shadow.
“From his exile on Elba, Napoleon plotted his next move, all the while making municipal improvements,” I said.
“Nah, you can just fit twice as many this way,” he said. “Plus you can walk right to the top.”
I saw him there sometimes, from atop my own perch at Der Bahn, a two-story water slide that emptied into the Comal. He’d carry the last tube up and sit at the apex of the pyramid and wave. I’d wave back.
“You just gonna stay there forever?” I asked as we drove home. He shrugged.
“Maybe,” he said. He liked it there. He liked being in charge. No one was watching him or waiting for him to make a mistake.
I was jealous, but not jealous enough to trade places.
One day I was on makeout duty, patrolling the hot tubs for jailbait fingering and other crimes against decency, and I overheard a trash-hauler bragging on her day off. She was sitting with her friends and two skinny boys wearing UnderArmor shirts in the water. Out of her uniform, in a black one-piece, she looked older, more adult, and I almost didn’t recognize her until I saw the railroad tracks on her teeth. “It’s nothing special,” she said, “just a beat-up white Trooper. But the back seat goes all the way down.” She smiled demurely and one of the boys ruined it with a hoarse, braying laugh, and when his voice cracked he reached over to the girl he was with and draped his arm over her shoulders, his hand on her breast. I blew the whistle even after he took it away.
We got drunk after work together, Nalgene bottles full of vodka and Country Fair lemonade mix. We ate at the pizza buffet. We had friends who worked as cooks in the Jesus camp and they snuck us ice cream through the back door. At each of these occasions Marky did not mention the underage girl. But like the God whose movements could only be inferred from random motions of wind, I saw signs of her presence everywhere: stray blonde hairs on the headrests, a bottle of sunscreen (Marky didn’t use it) in the cup holder, a Durex on the floorboard, still in its foil.
“How old is she?” I asked at his parents’ place two weeks before I flew out. We were sitting on the back porch, and I was trying to mix a gin and tonic, Marky’s dad’s bottle of Bombay Sapphire at my feet. I had the idea it was the sort of thing I’d need to learn how to drink before I went east, but I kept fucking up the ratios, getting a flat, syrupy mess out of it.
“Lark,” Marky said. “Her name is Lark, man.”
“Fucked up name.”
Marky looked over at me, eyes red. We always smoked schwag but this was a truly pathetic bowl, more stems than anything, and the smoke was acrid, like a burning tire. I was still in my uniform but Marky had changed into light jeans and a wife-beater. I felt stupid now, still shirtless, my whistle still around my neck.
“If I’m gonna get stuck on tubes all summer I might as well do the thing they put me there for, right?” Marky said. He had now been in Elba for over a month. He lifted his Lone Star to his lips. “She’s fifteen,” he said.
“Fuck that,” I said, too gently and after too long a pause, so that it sounded like I was encouraging him to do the exact thing that disgusted me.
“Three years,” he said. “Big fucking deal.” He seemed to consider saying something else, shook his head. “You’re just jealous,” he said, and passed the pipe back to me with his lighter.
Marky’s house was made of fuzzy-looking brick the color of Pepto-Bismol that always reminded me of attic insulation, the cotton-candy tufts between the slats of a ceiling. It was on the edge of the canyon that ran through town, and if you looked straight off the porch you could see the water slides in the distance, dark now but easy to spot, looking like the Bavarian towers they were modeled after.
That’s what I stared at as I coughed. I told myself it was the pipe that had brought stoned tears to my eyes—too hot, too hot— but even then I knew that wasn’t it. It wasn’t because her name was Lark or because she was fifteen, either. It was because of something else, something it would take me a few more years to figure out.
Marky stood up and pissed off the edge of the porch. “Fuck yeah,” he said, arcing a stream of piss into his mother’s dying crepe myrtle. When he was done he turned around, zipper still down, and gingerly patted his crotch like he was congratulating it. Then he zipped up his pants, leaving the top button of the jeans loose. “You know how Napoleon got off the island? He snuck off in a boat with a bunch of stuck-up English dudes. I googled it. They rescued him.”
“The flag,” I said, pouring more of the gin into my cup, lifting the cup to my lips, drinking just to hide my face. “It was just the British flag. It was a fake ship. A disguise.”
“He shoulda never left, man,” Marky said. He sat down, a little unsteady now. A mosquito landed at the tip of his nose. He didn’t notice it until I brushed it away with my fingertips. Then he punched me in the ribs, so hard I lost my breath. You never know when the last time you’ll ever truly talk to someone is until it’s already happened and you’re gasping for air.
That was in August. I went east and lost my tan. Marky took some classes. When I came home that first Christmas we saw each other at a dark house party where everyone was drunk. He seemed older, more secretive, and all I remember him saying to me before he left early was that he was deleting Facebook. When I got home I downloaded every photo I could find, and was surprised to find myself in one of them—a snapshot from tenth grade, shirtless on a municipal basketball court, making fake gang signs with our fingers.
I studied abroad. I took vacations with boat-shoed boys who thought water parks were vulgar. I walked the spacious halls of their houses, closing every door behind me.
I didn’t see Marky again until the summer my mother got sick. I had a car full of law books stacked up high next to the adult diapers in the backseat of my mom’s pickup, and I was feeling rangy and anxious, driving around by myself after arguing with a pharmacist about her dosages. I felt guilty about how much I wanted to leave, fly back to Boston and drive down the Cape, at the end of which was a summer rental in Provincetown I’d already put some money toward sharing. I didn’t want to go home yet, so I turned right on Rosemary and started to climb the hill, up to the breakfast taco place where the lady still remembered my name.
And then there they were. They were walking up the steep sidewalk about a hundred yards ahead, close to each other but far enough apart that I could have easily walked between them. I never saw her face. I wouldn’t have recognized it anyway. But I knew him from every angle, and only the little kid on his shoulders—a boy or a girl, I couldn’t tell, wearing a tiny San Antonio Spurs snapback—ruined the image. It had only been five years since I’d seen him at the top of his private mountain, since we’d waved at each other from across a walkable distance. He was still thin, his clothes would have still fit him perfectly. Now Marky was up at the top of the hill, looking back down, and even though it was ridiculous, even though he was too far away and the glare made me invisible, I told myself that he saw me, that he saw me and wanted me to rescue him.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Jordan Jacks is from Texas. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Yale Review, Weekday, and The Organist, the podcast for The Believer. He was the 2015-2016 James C. McCreight Fellow in Fiction at The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.
38.61º N, 90.19º W
If you head east on Arsenal in St. Louis, past the Anheuser Busch Brewery and the National Guard station, you eventually hit train tracks and a 12-foot-high cement flood wall covered in graffiti. If you turn left and walk along this wall for about a mile, you’ll reach a break big enough for a car to fit through, and if you walk through it, you’ll hit the Mississippi. When I lived in Saint Louis I liked to sit on the bluffs above the water, in an old bucket seat that had been ripped out of a car, and look at a docked houseboat where barge workers slept and ate between shifts. It’s gone now. But this is where it was.