Enjoy an excerpt from Phillip T. Stephens’ “Coincidence and Correspondence” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
I scrambled across our lawn, from waterfront to back porch, certain divine punishment would fall. Not fueled by God’s wrath but my father’s, his hand swift and unrelenting until my backside burned, and I repented seven times, seven times, seventy over.
We lived on the Canyon Lake waterfront, in a parsonage across the street from our church. A parsonage provided their ministers in lieu of a livable salary. The deacons believed the rising sunrise reflected in the lake’s waters would inspire and refresh my father to soldier on.
Not to mention: the deacon who owned the lot didn’t want to pay for the repairs he’d need to sell it.
This was the summer of 1959. Developers had yet to discover, conquer, and subdivide. The cottages that lined the shore could have used fresh coats of paint, but none of us could afford the upkeep. We shared a wooden pier that wobbled when the waves struck, but only Vic’s parents, who lived next door, owned a motorboat—a single engine outboard.
It looked like it survived combat from the last two wars.
My parents told me every day, “Don’t go near the water without one of us to watch.”
Vic could talk you into anything that would run afoul of parents or a teacher.
On an August afternoon, one of those summer afternoons when clouds evaporated and sidewalks seared the soles of bare feet like ham in a griddle, Vic dared me to cool off in the lake.
“Just get your feet wet. Who’s gonna find out?”
A vulture loped lazily overhead, scouting for sun-broiled snacks.
“What’s it gonna hurt?”
A toe, an ankle, and after five minutes of badgering, I stood in water to my knees.
Not good enough for Vic, who stood in water to his waist, running his hands across the surface and splashing it in my direction.
“Go in waist deep. Your pants will dry before your parents get home.”
Before you know it, the water covered our shoulders.
“Let’s have a dunking contest.”
Vic, stronger and older by two years, bested me every bout. On the last, he held my head under so long I breathed water into my lungs. When he finally released me, I coughed and cried.
I scrambled onto the grass and into our yard.
Vic said, “Better not tell your parents.”
I ran faster, my feet and ankles covered with grass blades that my father mowed the day before. “You’ll get the spanking.”
An adult would have ripped the screen door off its hinges with the force I used to yank it open.
“If your parents tell my parents, I’ll rope you to the bottom of the pier.”
A footnote: Vic retired as Canyon Lake’s chief deputy this January. Forty-eight years of rousting drunks, pulling over black drivers, and beating migrant workers who stayed too long past the season. The world’s Vics always turn up in law enforcement.
If not as cops, then as prison guards.
I dripped lake water and tears on the door mat.
My father ate a sandwich at the sink. He didn’t stop chewing.
“How’d you get so wet?”
Too scared to tell the truth, I lied. Worse. I turned Vic’s threat to tie me to the pier into my lie.
It’s amazing when you think about it. To imagine a five-year-old boy could spin such a twisted yarn so quickly and with so much detail. “I saw a body tied to the bottom of the pier. With chains. She was wearing a blue dress and red sneakers. Like grandma. It scared me so bad, I fell in.”
He called the police.
As soon as he rang off, I said the body didn’t scare me that badly. Maybe he should call the police and tell them not to bother.
In that moment, he realized that my story didn’t hold, as it were, water.
The grilling began: Why was I on the pier? I wasn’t supposed to go near the lake. How could I see a body at the bottom if I wasn’t already in the water?
Didn’t he tell me to never go swimming in the lake?
In other words, my brilliant lie placed me at the scene of the crime. Busted. Worse, since I’d already lied about the body.
I could no longer blame Vic.
He blistered my backside with God’s hand guiding his. He drew his belt from his pant loops, clutched the buckle in his palm, and snapped the leather against my butt and legs with tight practiced swings.
Parents felt no guilt about whippings in 1959. Texans believed a well-scarred backside produced a well-rounded personality.
Father also forgot to ring the police and tell them never mind. Streaks of red and blue flashed past our window just as I pulled my shorts over my tender buttocks. Not a man to let his anger go, he dragged me to the dock to apologize.
Three deputies stood at the end of the pier. The fourth barred our entry, and the entry of our neighbors drifting to the scene.
They had carried her body to the sand by the time the sheriff arrived. My father flattened his palm over my eyes, but I still managed to glimpse an elderly woman in a blue denim dress and red canvas shoes.
The deputies murmured “chained” and “a week, maybe more.”
The sheriff wanted to question me, but my father said, “He doesn’t know anything.”
Then, my father made me swear I’d never reveal the lie.
A promise I kept until today.
Phillip T. Stephens attended the writers’ workshop at Michigan State before teaching writing and design at Austin Community College for twenty years. His writing and art appear in anthologies, online, print and peer-reviewed academic journals. His work most recently appeared in the Kill Switch, Monsters We Forgot and Frozen Adornments anthologies, as well as Maintenant, Flash Fiction Weekly and Duende. He lives with Carol in Oak Hill, Texas where they built a habitat in the shade of their oaks to house foster cats for austinsiameserescue.org. They found new homes for more than three hundred abandoned pets. You can find his work at https://medium.com/@reifinery.