He was a grumpy, preternaturally serious kid for his 14 years. James, his best friend, couldn't have been more different. Cheerful and childlike to a fault, he'd never met a stranger.
The Forked Deer (pronounced fork-a-deer) was a tributary of the distant Mississippi, and all I'd seen of it before this day was a view of its muddy waters from a highway bridge on the south end of town. We would hike through the woods to a more northern point in the river, the boys told me, where a sharp bend created a calm swimming hole.
The day was hot, the woods chattering with birdcall. Mosquitoes swarmed our heads, and chiggers from tall fronds of Queen Anne's Lace explored the shaded caverns of our navels and armpits. Itching and sweaty, we finally reached the water, a dark pool the indistinguishable color of a newborn baby's eyes.
I waded in carefully off the muddy bank. Harry floated serenely on his back, staring up at the tree branches that shielded us from the bitter summer sky. James climbed atop a boulder and cannonballed in, rattling the quiet scene.
He sputtered for air and swam in my direction, then marched through the shallow water toward the bank, preparing for a second assault. I screamed when I saw blood seeping from his heel into the mud.
Harry jumped to action, examining James' foot by opening and closing like a puppet's mouth the neat, deep slit in the thick heel pad. We washed it with handfuls of river water, tied it up with one of James' socks, then covered the foot with the other sock for the long walk back. James hopped on one foot, his arms slung across my and Harry's shoulders for support.
We returned, baked and triumphant. James called his mother for a ride home -- a journey, I learned later, that detoured to the hospital for a tetanus shot. I felt initiated, relieved to be an interloper in the adventurous world of boys.
The next week I joined Harry and James for a swim at the Howard Johnson's off the highway nearby. The pool sat stark and unshaded, a blue hole in a concrete slab beneath an unfinished single-level motel. James flipped off the diving board before a guy in a hard hat came over to ask what we were doing. Harry stared nervously at his feet, and I stood with my mouth hanging open, sure we soon would be arrested for trespassing.
James emerged from the water slick as a seal, throwing back his shock of curly blond bangs, turned greenish with chlorine. The guy asked him what he was doing swimming in this pool.
"My daddy owns this motel," said James, smiling. "He said we could swim here whenever we want."
The guy just nodded and walked off. We swam in the pool every day for the next week. I perfected my jackknife off the stiff, low diving board. Then the "Grand Opening" sign went up in front of the Howard Johnson's lobby.
It was August now, time to start thinking about school, but not before we exploited our third swimming hole. It was the private pool of a neighbor, a single man named -- we thought hilariously -- David P. Potter. He lived alone behind a tall privacy fence, just him and that cool, inviting pool -- a real waste if you thought about it.
We spied and planned our assault. Normally David P. Potter returned home from work around 6, but one Friday evening he failed to show. James scaled the fence, then let the rest of us (our trio had grown to include a couple of the neighborhood kids) in through the gate.
We swam and jumped and dive-bombed and laughed at our good luck until David P. Potter's car lights shone through the slats of the fence, and we all had to run like hell. He knew who we were and told our parents what we had done.
Good thing summer was over.
The next year, James was sent to the military academy at Columbia for getting into trouble and having bad grades. His father said if he didn't straighten up, he'd end up in Vietnam. He sent me letters, sweet and full of bad misspellings. Harry had a girlfriend, which put him in an even worse mood than normal.
I joined the world of girls -- a whole new initiation. But that's another story.
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