By Rob Thomas
The game was called Stigmata. Aaron invented it. It was named for the Roman Catholic spiritual phenomenon in which bleeding wounds appear miraculously in the middle of your palms. The game worked like this: You would clamp a .22 shell into the right-hand side of an ordinary workbench vice, such that the bullet rim snagged on the outside lip of the vice. You held the claw hammer in your right hand with enough clearance for a good swing. Then you placed your left hand on the opposite side of the vice with your palm cupping the bullet’s tip.
Stigmata was a variation of a much simpler campfire game called Buckshot. For that game, you needed a fire, a box of shells, and enough people to stand in a circle around the blaze. Each person in the circle would take a turn tossing a shell into the fire. The shells would pop quickly in the flames and the bullet would whiz out of the fire. It was rare to make it around the circle. Someone always balked, dropped, or ran. The actual odds of getting hit were probably lower than with Stigmata, but the risk seemed greater because the bullet might catch you anywhere. Who knows? With Stigmata, the hammer rarely connected.
Aaron’s dad was a cop and a hunter so there was plenty of ammunition that wouldn’t be missed. Our friendship only really lasted that summer, but at that age a summer can be enough to leave its mark. Sometimes a summer is all it takes for one person to really leave their mark on another. Aaron and my friend Mark showed up one day while I was sitting around wondering what this big lump of a summer was going to be. Aaron had dark and wild curly hair, and these intense brown eyes that could leap from place to place without making him seem skittish. He also had a car. They honked from the street instead of ringing the bell. It was a thing kids did back then.
Sometimes a summer is all it takes for one person to really leave their mark on another.
“Hey man, you want to go to the beach?” Mark yelled when I opened the door. He was sitting in the open window frame on the passenger side of the car, like the cool kid in an after-school special. And seemed surprisingly unselfconscious about this. Aaron just reached a muscly bare arm out the driver’s side window and thumped the car roof. That and his face through the windshield were my first glimpse of him.
“Come on, hop in,” he coaxed.
The beach at Britannia was a desert of sand with three woebegone lifeguard towers standing sentinel over the desolate beach. A cool breeze was rolling off the river. It was early summer, and hardly a scorcher, but a setback like this was nothing to Aaron, as I would discover.
“I know a better place,” he said. And just like a kid’s hand out the window flattening to a wing against resistance, we got back into the car and headed someplace better. But we needed beer first and hopped across the river to pick some up. Like so many things that summer, I barely remember drinking the beer. In 20 minutes, we were wandering up a brush path with our curiosity and our six-pack. We climbed a short rise of rocks where the path opened onto the lip of a gaping quarry. “Welcome to the Pit,” Aaron announced. “This place has the beach beat.”
I had never been with anyone like Aaron before. His tastes were simple and entirely his own. His gift was a raw enthusiasm that was not self-conscious and could not be deterred. He could make the corniest pronouncements as though they were secret truths that no one had the courage to name. The Pit had the beach beat. There was no question.
The lip jutted out about 15 feet above the water, which was clear with an unnatural turquoise hue. The cliff receded gradually to the right and left, from this high point, until the shore met the level with the water. You could tell it was an old quarry by the boxy cut of the crags and how the slag gravel held the sumac and spindly firs at bay. The pool seemed bottomless, but was sunlit and warm down to the depth of your toes. Smooth-skinned girls wearing bikinis basked on towels and rock shelves near the lower shore, while puffed-up boys in swimming trunks loitered and smoked and nursed their beers.
He could make the corniest pronouncements as though they were secret truths that no one had the courage to name.
Aaron said there was a story that a towering crane was sunk at the bottom, stranded there the moment the old quarry flooded.
We had only a few moments to let this sink in before Aaron had stripped to his boxers and leapt into the blue sky that hung over the gaping pit. He seemed to dangle there in cannonball tuck for one stretched and screaming moment. Then he vanished. Then we heard the distant splosh.
The whole summer charged on that way, from one heart-stopping leap to the next. Even though the things remembered were mostly frozen instances of terror. We learned a few of Aaron’s secrets and just about all of his games. Games like Buckshot, Stigmata, and others I won’t even mention. It just rushed on and on like that, up until the thing that happened to his father.
We were already sitting in his car in the parking lot of the General Hospital before he had explained why we were there. It was typical Aaron, right up to the point when he started crying.
“I need you here,” he explained, between sobs. “Because I need to hold it together long enough to go in and see him.”
I could see that the chances of that happening were slim. That’s when I stretched across to the driver side and draped my arms over him, pulling his quivering body as close as I was able. Close enough to feel the spasmic sobs drift from his body into mine and back again. The closest I had ever been with any man up until then. He was terrified and still mostly alone. How could anyone comfort a guy like that? He would toss ammunition into a fire and sit back without flinching. For fun. That was his game, to never flinch.
Back at school that September, at Our Lady of the Renunciation, we passed in the halls as though we had never met. The feeling was odd, and not unexpected. But I heard that his father pulled through.
Rob Thomas lives and works in Ottawa, and recently published a unique poetry chapbook. He has also reviewed a few books for Apt613.