Baldy spots two breasts floating in the water. Baldy, Country, Sarge, R.J., and I all line up along the water’s edge.
“Look at this,” Aftershock yells from downriver.
A torso propped up by a knotted rubber tree. Nervous laughter. Baldy throws up. Country points to another body, neck to belly, that surfaces near the first.
Another body comes up, one more, and yet another. The breasts bob; their small nipples still blood pink.
We fall out of ourselves and into the water. Circle the floating bodies. Timid and cautious at first. Some guys hold their rifles above their heads—wondering if it’s a trap.
After a few minutes, Bam-Bam reaches out to touch and nothing happens. Then R.J. does and I do.
Aftershock and Country float on their backs spraying bug-filled bay water from their mouths while their free hands reach for the side of a breast. I think of girls back home wearing thin summer dresses.
We sing “House of the Rising Sun” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” We tread water rubbing hands over breasts and ribs and bellies.
Baldy, married with three kids, says Marlene had the most beautiful rack. She was his friend’s mom. He saw them when he was 8 or 9. R.J. says he’d suck Daisy’s fingers until the cows came home. Sarge said he ain’t the kind to kiss and tell, but she had finger-deep dimples and not in her cheeks.
“Breathing in their ears; that’s what turns me on,” says Country. “It drives them wild. Once I figured that out, I was the king of Alabama.”
I listen, thinking of Linda.
“You sure are quiet over there, baby Cal,” Sarge says. “Who do you get your rocks off to?”
I act like I don’t hear him. They all start swimming around me, calling out “Baby’s never gotten any. Baby Cal’s still got his cherry.”
Someone holds me under the brown water. I’m a body in the water. Clouds of legs and torsos and light up above.
I surface next to Baldy putting his mouth on a dead nipple, weeping and grunting like an animal.
Hours pass with my friends holding on to floating breasts. The bugs that seemed to stay away before are hard to ignore. The breasts I thought were still warm are actually bloated, nearly unrecognizable.
“We should call this in. Something terrible happened here,” I say, as the sun begins to set.
The other men boo. Throw rocks. Wild-eyed. Waterlogged.
“Really, I can’t stand this anymore. It’s all wrong.”
“Oh, oh, oh, Baby’s cry-ing,” sings Country, who is doing the backstroke between drags from his Chesterfield.
“Cal, it’s all right. Everything’s alright,” says Sarge, getting out of the water.
When I reach for the radio wrapped in plastic on the ground, he blocks me.
I back toward the rubber trees with my hands in my pockets then charge full-on into the jungle. Leaving my whole pack behind for the first time in almost a year.
Sarge is breathing on my neck. Before long, he has me up against the low porch of a fishing hut.
“Where are you going, Cal? There’s nowhere to go,” Sarge says, his thumb in my throat.
His glasses, tied around his neck with tan shoestrings, poke into my chest. Sweat burns my eyes. None of this, from the start, has seemed real. Sarge is right; no one will find me here.
Sarge is pressing harder into my neck. The sharpness of his glasses. The buckle of his pack. I start to lose consciousness when, out of the corner of my eye, I see a torn throw net on the porch. I curl a knuckle in a hole, inch it over.
Sarge is saying, “We’ve done wrong, I know, but hell we need some relief in this godforsaken jungle.”
I pull the net over us both. Press the hook into his mouth, surprising him, and find my way out.
He’s still talking out of his mind as I make my way to the Bay. I get in the water and swim as far as I can. I hold my breath and make a list of longings: Playboy magazine and biking near the tracks, the smell of bacon frying.
I am in Lake Champlain with Linda. She is swimming where the sky and water merge.
When she takes off her flower print swimsuit top and dangles it from her index finger, I’m terrified of what might come next.