From the Previously Abandoned Novel-in-Progress I’d been Calling The Consummation of Dirk that I Need to Rename Now that I’ve Given that Title to Another Book
They came alone or in pairs or as several-person familial units, joining the serpentine chain that stretched back from the water’s edge, barefoot on the cooling sand, under a darkening sky. Husbands and wives with hands clasped, children’s eyes downcast and blank, faces twitching with the strain demanded to match adults’ solemn miens, some of these young ones momentarily caving, maniacally malapropos smiles stretching lips or giggles strangledly escaping. The small throng consisting mainly of New Life Christian Fellowship congregants, a few of the docs Ern’d worked with before retiring interspersed with a handful of Kara and Tommy’s classmates, also the large ursine girl standing near the front of the line as it approached the dedicated canoe. Stephanie knew hardly any of these people, she was the only one from the old Aliamanu neighborhood, where her acquaintance with Dirk had blossomed, briefly, in the summer after each of them had completed the sixth grade, into the first romance of her young life. Years back. Stephanie’d grown into her stout tall frame early and the heads of most of the children her age had bobbed at roughly chest-level so that she had therefore never been considered much of a catch by the neighborhood kids or her classmates at Aiea Elementary, and probably wouldn’t have, even if you were to leave aside her being haole, from Kansas of all places. A lonely eleven-year-old kid whose preferred after-school pastime was to pad barefoot out into the sunny afternoon and climb high into the vinestrung rubber tree cantilevered via extrusive tangles of root from the hill overlooking her housing unit’s small front yard, settle into the cross-hatching of (necessarily) thick branches that served as a perfect aerie or nest and totally lose herself for hours on end in the pages of her favorite books. Though she did on occasion try to connect with the other military brats in the little off-base housing community; most of them were haoles too.
One night a neighborhood-wide flashlight-tag extravaganza disintegrated following a series of disputations as to whether or not one particularly ineffectual “It” had been lying about the beam of her flashlight capturing the motion of several contestants and had been resorting to the illegal strategy of hollering Got you! or Frozen! or Don’t move: I’ve caught you [with the light that shines in the darkness unto the eyes of all men], when in fact, she had not even seen the fleeing party, let alone tagged him or her with the roving beam of light, to which the by-this-point (understandably, if not strictly justifiably) indignant It, i.e., this selfsame Stephanie, whose turn it would presently be after just a few more families paid their respects, to approach the slow-burning funereal pyre or canoe had begun to argue that, First of all, since the flashlight’s beam could not be felt as if it were like a low-frequency laser-blast or even a spray of water or something, it was only fair that participants operate on the Honor System, whereby if the “It” declared loudly and with firmness that she’d got them, it was only fair that they freeze in place in accordance with the rules of the game, and that since the whole point of the flashlight was to illuminate patches of night’s near total darkness so as to catch fleeing competitors mid-flight—since, that is, the flashlight essentially created vision for the purblind “It”—it shouldn’t even be strictly necessary that the beam physically touch the escaping person or contestant or competitor, since all that mattered was whether or not they were seen—But, she’d gone on, over the eruption of protest (the gist of which being that since the game was called fucking flashlight tag, it sort of made sense that you’d have to be tagged by the flashlight in order to be properly or legally frozen [or by the flashlight’s beam, since obviously you weren’t going to hurl the actual flashlight at a bolting shadow, or chase one down and bash it over the head with the actual device—you could kill or seriously wound someone like that, or else lose the flung flashlight if you missed, in the darkness, unless you were to deploy a second flashlight in the search for the lost flung first one, which would obviously disrupt the flow of the game] but so you couldn’t just see the person you wanted to freeze, otherwise the game’d be called Eye Tag, wouldn’t it?)—But wait, Stephanie’d hastened to clarify over the swelling clamorous unrest and disputation, the point was moot anyway, because as it so happened she had struck the fleeing parties with the light, each and every one of them, you stinking little cheats, she said, and if they were going to lie about being caught when they’d been validly touched by the light, then the whole premise of an Honor System pretty much fell to pieces, didn’t it?, and it seemed pointless to even go on pretending to play a game so wholly dependent upon Honor if so many of its participants were going to behave as if they hadn’t been raised with any, Honor, or least not very much—
At which point, Stephanie remembers (the line before her on the sand here down to just a couple folks before the single shirtless man with a wispy triangulation of beard catching a touch of the soft off-shore breeze, bare bronze torso gleaming in the dipping sun’s last rays), that particular evening’s First Monday of Summer Neighborhood Flashlight Tag extravaganza’s congregation of grade-to-intermediate–school kids1 had more or less instantaneously dispersed in grumbling consensus that the game wasn’t any fun with such a sucky “It,” some of them even viciously co-opting the Steffisaurus moniker that her sisters used only in affectionate contexts. . . .
Which was how Steffi, trying not to feel too dejected (the truth being, she would admit to Dirk later that evening, that the truth was she actually hadn’t tagged a few of the kids who’d protested, hadn’t got them with the actual light, technically—or even technically seen them, but it hadn’t seemed fair, everybody’d been ganging up on her and, she’d felt, conspiring to cheat on the several times she had legitimately beamed a kid, several of them in fact, only to see them slip gleefully into the enfolding night, shouting things like Too, slow, Steffasaurus, which was just plain dirty and unfair and mean, and how could she not retaliate by fighting fire with fire, in terms of just bending the rules back into shape a teensy bit) but also not yet ready to retreat to her family’s unit of the five-plex just yet, had moseyed over to the playground and found herself squeezed into the baby-swing’s tiny rubber basket-chair next to Dirk who was lying back to look up at the mostly-overcast sky, pockmarked with little patches of galactic light, and who responded to her casual query, Just thinking, and beside whom she found herself soon thereafter seated Indian style in the darkening dirt under a mauka shower’s faint warm drizzle.
Whereupon Stephanie’s neighbor, little Dirk King, would eventually, and with sweeping circumspection, present a hypothetical situation whereby the two of them, in a purely experimental capacity, would attempt to enact what is frequently described in pre-adolescent parlance as the French kiss—but their prefatory conversation consisting largely in analytical commentary on flashlight tag itself, broadly, as far its merits (built-in excitement of a chase, heightened by arena [i.e. the darkness]; psychoanalytical component of trying to determine what sort of personality might be inclined to hide where, or, as the non-“It,” just what sort of spots a particular “It” might by predisposition overlook; the sheer throb-inducing thrill of waiting with held breath [or with breath taken as quietly as possible in the event that a given “It” loitered longer than you could stand to hold it], waiting until the shadow of the “It” behind “Its” sweeping beams of light [only the craftiest and also the bravest “Its” did not keep their flashlight on most of the time, despite this being an obviously poor strategy if you ever wanted to catch anyone unawares] disappeared down a hill or around the corner of a housing complex—and then: swooping from cover to save those whose circumstances were such that they couldn’t save themselves, exulting in both the glory—I save you—and, the deed now done—I saved you—before melting back into the darkness, stealing away from the field of salvation to go on doing as much good for the ones who hadn’t been so skillful or lucky as you, while still managing to stay safely beyond the reach of the light) and then more specifically this night’s game, which, they agreed, had been totally fun till right there at the end when everyone’d started acting like such dicks . . . the approach gradual, creeping, obscenely tedious but no less blatant for its pace, Dirk inching his butt over the damp dirt, perhaps believing that this gradual motion would somehow be less detectable or obvious. Wrongly of course: she saw him lift and slide each inch around the diminishing arc between them, and even if she didn’t see, it’s not as if she wouldn’t notice at some point that where they’d at first sat roughly face to face they were now jointly surveying approximately the same patch of damp grass from which Dirk, while staring fixedly at some spot in the indeterminate middle-distance plucked individual blades and folded or twisted them with single-handed dexterity, as his left hand discreetly poked into the narrowing patch separating his plaid shorts from the exposed right leg up which her jean shorts had by this point ridden quite high. Oddly enough, she remembered and could even, if she closed her eyes and shut away the surf’s steady pound and the setting sun’s last spume of magenta out over the sea’s far seam and reduced the recital of Dirk-remembrance (this one’s author a man with rimless round glasses and a ginger beard, saying something about a coconut’s unexpected and near-calamitous plummet from high above where he and Dirk stood chatting up at the tree’s base) to a drone, recreate for a second a semblance of the precise complex of feelings that had come lapping over her like gentle waves (the kind you watch barely muster the heft to even break, at Hickam Harbor on cool summer evenings when you have nowhere to be that night or tomorrow or all summer, and there’s nothing but water between you and what looks like it could be the end of everything) as they sat there, the two of them, under the sort of precipitate mist that was indigenous or exclusive to Hawaii, at least as far as Steffi’d ever known, having never once experienced anything like it in all the many places she’d lived since leaving these islands a decade and some several years back—twittering nerves as the gap diminished and the way-less-coy-than-he-seemed-to-think (although it was cute, this need to look away) approach neared completion: excitement, yes, but embarrassment or trepidation too, over her failure to shave above the knee since the beginning of the previous week; over the thigh’s tremendous girth—her sister having flatly admitted that it had been the lumberous jiggle of these thighs and her haunches one evening after dinner, as they’d wrestled on the living room floor, that had first inspired the moniker Steffisaurus by which her entire family still regularly referred to her (and sometimes even introduced her as) to this day; over her uncertainty as to how she ought to respond (should she touch his fingers? Grasp his other hand? Rub his leg?); over what might eventuate beyond the initial touch; but all these anxieties all submerged beneath a certain nameless thrill as the moment drew near. . . .
And now there was only this short dark local guy with heavily-tattooed shoulders, amiable paunch, bristly goatee and a long mane flowing down past his neck, still delivering an encomium she could parse only occasional parts of between Steffi and her turn. He stood with his feet spread wide in the sand and his hands clasped behind his back, recalling at length—hardly anyone seemed to be sticking solely to whatever they’d written on the lavender slips of paper, Steffi noticed—a seemingly random assortment of anecdotes that, though tough to decipher (the heavy pidgin she vaguely remembered not being able to understand much of back when she’d heard it as a girl still confusing) seemed to mostly center around themes of self-sacrifice, generosity, compassion, kindness, love. Dirk coming off in eulogy, at least, as a pretty decent guy.
On an easel beside the canoe, a picture of Dirk at an indeterminate age, shirtless, muscles taut and gleaming with sweat, standing on the front porch of the very same housing unit Steffi’d seen him enter and exit all those summers long ago.
Jonathan Callahan’s first book, The Consummation of Dirk, won this year’s Stacherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and will be published by Stacherone Books/Dzanc in early 2013. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Unsaid, Witness, The Lifted Brow, Pank, Quarterly West, Keyhole, >Kill Author, Used Furniture Review, Western Humanities Review, Underwater New York, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere. He grew up in Honolulu, studied fiction at Sarah Lawrence, then taught writing at SUNY Purchase for a year. He is actively seeking representation for his second book, Notes from a Burning Underground, a short novel in three parts. Contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.