It’s my nineteenth birthday and I’m swimming with ten friends in a quarry when this old man with a big beard comes charging across the lawn. He’s one of those tall guys who makes himself seem taller by walking stooped, like he’ll become gigantic if he rears his head up. Plus, when your eyes sit inches above the waterline, everybody on land seems tall.
“Who let you in?” he says. “Who said you could be here?”
Before answering, we swim to these wooden squarish docks floating in the middle of the quarry, and clamber up their ladders to face him.
“We walked ourselves in,” Gina says
“Through the field,” Erin says
“Field!” He enunciates field like it’s an outrageous thing to travel through. “This place look open to you?!”
We’re familiar with rhetorical questions, but this one confuses: we can’t see anything to open or activate—just a PVC-pipe water-purification rig that’s seemingly running. Windex-blue water surrounds us, ripples against the toothy granite perimeter. There’s diving boards, a playground slide, signs saying “NO LIFEGUARDS ON DUTY”, ladders shawled with algae; behind the old man’s reddening face, leaves turn postcard colors, russets and golds. It’s nice.
“We’re sorry, sir,” I say. “Your website says you’re open until sunset.”
“That’s what our phones said,” Dave says.
“Your phones!” He goes to the picnic table where our stuff’s piled. “I should take your goddamn phones and throw them—plunk!—in the water.” As he speaks, he mimicks splashes with flicks of his fingers. “You little shits don’t even want to know what’s down there!”
“Nor do we care,” Gina says. She sits on her float and settles her toes confrontationally in his waters; float-to-float our party sits down to join her in toe-wriggling solidarity.
On the table rests a box of chocolate cupcakes whose bluey-indigo frosting has stained my tongue and hands the color of quarry-depths.
“Go ahead,” Erin says. “Have a cupcake.”
Instead, the old man throws a cupcake at Gina’s float. It falls five feet short and he stamps his feet and mutters, stimming his arms about, and it’s in this crazy moment I see a compromise, hatch a plan.
“Listen, Sir,” I say. “How about this? We’ll swim to the float nearest you. You take your shots at us. Then we go.”
He doesn’t say yes and he doesn’t say no, so to prove myself a trustworthy bargainer, I swim to the float nearest him. When I surface, he beans my head with a cloud of sugar. Erin surfaces next and he hits her left side, frosts the area from breast to shoulder. He chucks his last cupcake at Gina and misses: it plunks in the water and bobs and crumbles before it sinks. He searches for other baked munitions. For someone who’d never wanted cupcakes to begin with, he seems awfully mad now that they’re gone.
The old man walks to the edge of the quarry, and as he’s standing there with nothing to say or throw, his Poseidon vibe really comes through, like he wants to grab his trident and jump in his waters and summon forth waves to wrack us upon his rocks, and for about five seconds he seems majestic and frighteningly in command of his quarry. But between myth and reality life installs helpful partitions; cold, deep quarries are not something seventy-year-olds jump into fully-clothed, even if they own the place, and we know his quarry isn’t deep enough to swallow all of us if he grabbed a gun and opted to settle the matter that way.
“I come back in half an hour. If you little shits are still here I’m calling the sheriff—or you’ll wish I did!”
When he leaves the teasing starts. “There’s a cautionary tale for you, Joey,” someone says. “How many birthdays till that’s you?” says another. People ponder if he throws trash in this quarry; Bronwyn, a punker, says she sure would. Our quips carry from float-to-float like the ribbits of frogs on lily pads until, in the middle of the ribbiting, the clear voice of Gina sounds.
“Fucking eh, Joey, you could have got us killed. You even check his site?”
I want to answer her but can’t get a word through my grin. I just say, “Uh…” until my throat becomes a digeridoo for holding that one note. My friends push me off the float—shoving harder than they need to, honestly, with it being my birthday and all.
Underwater, I can see two sinking cupcakes. As they fall they jettison squid-inky trails and they’re lovely to watch, so lovely I test my lungs a second before following the bubbles from my nostrils back to the surface where my friends, gathered here for me, silently stand. I couldn’t really tell who pushed me from the float, so I just smile and assume everybody did. I climb the ladder and look at my friends and I wonder who among them I’ll get to keep, and for how long.
Samuel J Adams is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University. His recent fiction appears in BULL and Rubbertop Review. He tweets @Bib_Zone