Half naked in his bright red surfer shorts, the son grips the edge of the baptismal pool with pale pink toes, terrified of stepping down to his father in the water. Some Sundays there’s a whole lineup of sinners, but today he is the only one. The blue plastic whirlpool — usually covered by a carpeted, removable section of the church’s gray, rectangular stage — reminds him of the Jacuzzi where he recently lost it to Daniella Rodriguez, long-time member of his father’s non-denominational congregation. The son darts his eyes to the right, skims the two hundred business-casual Christians fidgeting with paper programs in shiny aluminum chairs, and finds her sitting with his mother in the second row. Tan and beautiful beneath the fluorescent lights, Daniella twirls her long black hair, twinkles her fingers at him with the other hand, and then turns to his mother and giggles. His mother, graceful monster that she is, giggles back at the girl and taunts him with a knowing wave. He grimaces and refocuses on his father’s bald head and buoyant man tits, grey-haired and bobbing just above the water line. His father reaches out, but the son stays frozen, toes white now from gripping so hard. The son wonders if his father knows that he no longer believes, if he knows that this will be the final test.
But his father doesn’t know and learned to stop speculating years ago. All he knows is the cool water that surrounds him. The rough, sandpapery floor that rubs raw his cracked, fungus-infested feet. His son’s brawny body, sunken green eyes and wild blond hair, each so unlike his own. He feels the thrum of the pool’s filter and the weight of his wife’s eyes, eyes that will blame him if his son turns away. He resists looking at her and waves his son down, as much to please his wife as for the sake of his son’s soul. Silently, he confesses this sordid motivation to God. Still, it persists. He picks his wet mustache, the brown dye of which has faded in recent days, and waves a little harder this time, mouthing a stern “Come On” to his son. No response. The father caves and glances at his wife, who for some reason is sitting next to the Rodriguez girl and is motioning for him to move closer. Never one to disobey an order, the father steps forward, reaches up and takes the son’s hand. The son smiles at his father, who interprets that smile as one of love and acquiescence and so lightly pulls on the son’s arm.
But the smile wasn’t one of love at all, and now it’s too late. The son has lost his balance. It’s either step down or fall face first into the water, and so he steps. The water’s cool temperature and the roughness of the plastic startle him. He winces as the water surrounds his testicles and they cower up inside. The son leans back in his father’s arms and wonders if his have shrunk as well. They have, two of the few things he and his son still have in common, though the father pays them no attention. No, the words are what matter to the father, words that flow from his mouth down to his son who listens but wants to laugh and so forgets. Having forgotten, the son gasps and flails, feels almost like he’s drowning as the father dunks him once, twice, and then a third and final time, Amen. And then the father hugs the son, proudly smiles and nods at his wife handing a tissue to the weeping Rodriguez girl, and thanks the God whom he must pretend to love most and sometimes does. The son hugs the father back — not because he loves him — but because he wants to whisper that now he knows for sure. Of course, the son says nothing, and all is quiet until the father cues a prayer.
Andrew Shepperson was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he received his BA in English at the University of New Mexico in 2009. He is currently a Follett Fellow pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. His first publication, “Cremation,” appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the COACHELLA REVIEW.