Northwest Writer

That night, Darla and I skipped Kootenai High’s Halloween Harvest Hop––or that candy-ass dance as Darla called it––to sit by the lake and pass a bottle of Jim Beam between us. We didn’t have weed, but we smoked my mother’s no-filter Pall Malls, which made my head pound. I couldn’t keep up with Darla, drinking or smoking, no way, even if that made me a disgrace to the men and boys of Idaho.

We sat on the lakeshore and stared at the water. Cold pebbles stabbed my butt and the wind ripped tears from my eyes. Above us stretched a heavy slab of silver clouds that looked like snow. I was a little buzzed on Beam and a little worried about my baptism, set for the next morning, but Darla was flat-out drunk. At 11:32––I looked at the Bulova my chickenshit father gave me the day he decided to “relocate”––Darla announced that she was going swimming. She stood up, swayed a little, shrugged out of her sheepskin jacket, and started peeling clothes.

“Darla, it’s freezing.” As if to prove me right, one solitary snowflake blew past us in the wind.

“Don’t be a candy-ass, Calvin.” She toe-heeled off her chukka boots and unzipped her Wranglers. “Come on.”

“Not me,” I said. “I’m not getting dunked till tomorrow.”

“Oh, that.” She wriggled her jeans off as if I wasn’t there. “Why the fuck do you want to get baptized?” Her panties were bright red and edged with un-Darla-like white lace. Given her swagger and swearing, I expected boxer shorts.

“My mother,” I said.

Darla unbuttoned her flannel shirt. Her striptease was making me nervous, so I slugged the last of the Beam. It burned like brushfire all the way down but didn’t prevent my dick from standing up and denting itself against my zipper. I shifted things while Darla unhooked her white bra. Okay, I looked because I had never seen a real girl’s tits before in person. Her nipples were like two crinkled kidney beans.

“Caught you looking,” she called out. “Better say a goddamn prayer. Better ask for forgiveness.” She let the lace-trimmed panties drop and lofted them with her big toe so they landed on my knee. As she trotted away it was like a black-and-white movie with her pale fire-plug body bobbing toward the dark water and her long black hair wild against the silver sky.

The next morning, before the 8 a.m. service, I trudged to church for my baptism. I stood in my bare feet on the creepy concrete floor of the hallway that led to the immersion tank. I had on the mildew-smelling maroon choir robe they let losers borrow for baptisms. My eyes felt like burnt balls of sand rubbing against their sockets. I might’ve made a run for it––out the back door and all the way to Canada––if I could’ve found my shoes, and if I hadn’t been joined at that moment by Kootenai High’s gleaming vision of girl-perfection, Melinda McKenzie. No maroon mildew for Melinda. She had her own robe, angel-white with gold buttons, and she held a white leather zip-up bible. Her honey-brown hair was sculpted into loops and curlicues all over her head, like a birthday present wrapped at a store. She didn’t know who the hell I was, but she blinked her blue-shadow lids at me, patted her hair-loops and said, “This is my sacrifice.”

“What is?” I asked, worried my hangover breath might knock her down.

“I got my hair done special just to let it be wrecked in the water.”

“Looks nice,” I said. Actually, it looked stupid.

“What’s your sacrifice?” Her pink lips were so puffed with gloss it made me want to get a job so I could buy her things.

“My sacrifice?” Let’s see stop drinking? Stop smoking? Stomp on my dad’s ugly watch? “Everything,” I blurted.

Melinda tilted the entire honey-looped planet of her head in bewilderment. “What do you mean?” She stepped toward me, but only to park her bible on a shelf behind us. She smelled like baby powder, oatmeal, and hairspray. I almost touched one of the hair-coils, but Reverend Hawkes appeared in a wedge of light at the other end of the hall. He beckoned to Melinda and she floated toward him, white robe receding like a lantern down a well. I never answered her question.

We passed each other when I went in for my turn. Her hair was indeed wrecked and the dripping robe clung to her cone breasts. She sprayed me when she said, “I feel completely cleansed.”

I didn’t see how. The water in the tank was murky and smelled like a locker room. Reverend Hawkes stood there, immersed to the waist, vestments floating around him. He said something about entering the kingdom and put his hand––reeking of Hai Karate––over my mouth and nose. He was a former all-conference line-backer from the University of Montana, and he dipped me backward, fast and hard, like a bulked-up ballroom dancer. The Our Redeemer’s Covenant congregation, including my mother, looked on. I panicked and opened my eyes to see the shiny undersurface of the water slicing down on me like the silver sky over the lake. In my terror, I gulped a gulletful of thick liquid. It curdled in my stomach for hours, the whiskey of sin and the salvation of aftershave.

The night before, while I was sitting on those cold pebbles, Darla plunged into the lake and swam a few strokes. She shrieked at me to come in because the water was fine. I picked up her red panties and stuffed them in my pocket for a joke. Soon enough, she staggered back, teeth chattering, pubes dripping, feet slapping the pebbles, and her long black hair already freezing so it clicked together in little icicle clumps. She pulled on all her clothes without the panties and never said a word about them, not that night, or the next time we got drunk, or ever.

“I mean everything in my life up till now” first appeared in The Tishman Review.