By Tracy Pitts
Them older boys run ahead of all of us youngest boys singing that they’ve got the joy joy joy joy down in their hearts for the Lord. All of ‘em are naked now except for them flip flops and look a lot like band aids with those funny tan lines. Some of us try and laugh.
This is tradition.
No one’s doin’ a whole lot of talkin’. We all walk like little soldiers, towels in our fists and over our shoulders. I can hear every one’s bathing suits scratching up against their legs. The grass on both sides of the dirt road is real tall and dry and sounds like an old rattlesnake whenever the wind blows. We are somewhere in Oklahoma, but I can’t remember where exactly.
The two black boys I walk with ain’t really my friends or nothin’, they’re just the only boys I recognized come from my congregation. One of ‘ems name is Joe and the other is Jerry, but I can’t remember which cause they’re twins. Ain’t never met twins before. Sounds like somethin’ both special and awful all at once, having someone around all the time that you can’t get rid of that sounds just like you and looks just like you.
Last night, someone put a mannequin’s head on a broomstick and peeked into the cabin windows. Wonder if it happened to any of the other campers, or maybe they’re not sayin’ nothin’ cause they was just as scared as I was at the time.
This road, someone says, is gonna run out real soon and there ain’t nowhere else to go. Older boys are gonna be waiting for us if you’re a first year camper.
This is tradition.
To my left, Joe or Jerry says loud enough sos the other boys can hear that he’s gonna swim across the entire lake before someone catches him. To my right, Joe or Jerry says there’s no use trying to escape and just give in and get it over with.
Sure enough, the road ends and them older boys are all on their knees, in a circle, digging the biggest hole I ever seen at the edge of the lake, singing that if the devil don’t like it he can sit on a tack. None of them are looking at us, but lots of ‘em start smiling.
Somebody blows their whistle, which means all of us better line up on the dock sos we can be accounted for. After a little while, they blow the whistle again, which means we can jump in the water now if we want to.
Ain’t long before them older boys start calling for them first year campers. If you don’t come when they call after you, they find you themselves, pull you right out of the water. Don’t matter none if you start cryin’.
I hear ‘em calling out for them twins, Joe and Jerry, except they call their names at the same time, like they the same person. They call after ‘em a few times before only one of ‘em finally shows up, walks right into their arms without putting up a fight. They keep calling both their names for the other twin that ain’t shown up yet. Someone tells someone else to swim under the dock and see if he’s there. And if he ain’t under the dock, check up the dirt road we come down. And if he still ain’t found, someone get back to camp and see if he’s a real coward and is hiding in his cabin.
Soon enough, I hear my name. An older boy with lots of freckles points right at me. I walk to him and he walks to me. Picks me right up and throws me over his shoulder, upside down. The campers we pass tell me to make sure and keep my eyes closed and my mouth closed, especially. Also, be real still and hold my breath for as long as I can.
He carries me over to that big hole they was digging then just lets go of me, drops me right inside. Them older boys surround me and start baptizing me in mud and water. I see what the other campers was tryin’ to tell me: the water don’t smell like water; the mud don’t smell like mud. I make sure to do just what they told me to—close my eyes and mouth, hold real still and hold my breath.
They put their hands all over me to make sure every inch of me is covered in mud. I can feel ‘em in my hair and ears, up and down back and under my arms. They even get in between all my toes and inside my bathing suit.
When they finish with me they try standing me up but I’m not ready yet. An older boy picks me up all the way, holding me up sos my feet can’t even touch the ground while another boy flicks my erection with his finger. When I hear all them older boys laughing, I swear right then and there never to open my eyes ever again.
Then I’m shook loose, dropped right back into that hole. When I open my eyes, I can see Joe or Jerry—whichever one got baptized before I did—in front of me and he’s looking in the same direction as all them older boys. They’re all lookin’ at that other twin boy, Joe or Jerry, right there, come out of nowhere. He’s holding a big rock in his hand that he just used to hit that boy that was holding me, in the head. Everyone is quiet. No one knows what to do. There is blood in the water.