If you swim before the children wake
take me along. Though it is you, Folly Beach
lifer, and me ... [+]
When I get home from Sunday Service, I strip my pressed white shirt in the living room. I step out of my slacks. Peel off the tight black socks. I fumble naked for my dive skin, the black and blue rubber sheath that zips to the bulge in my throat. In the tall mirror of my bedroom, buried in this little house near the sea, I see the image of my father behind his pulpit. I hear him hewing the bricks of gold that await him, his flock, me. God and the Son and our mansions in heaven, their crystal columns and long reflection pools.
Set into the roof of my father's church is a dome of steel and painted glass. The sun fills the rubied brow of Christ, his ashen body, the azure heavens, the gold thereafter. The coral cherubs of the windows light on clouds of spun copper, and on Sunday the young and old raise their hands. But no matter the clarity of my father's heaven, to him it is far away. Even while it is perfect in its distance, to him it is untouchable. I am glad to be home, to feel the scratch of carpet under my feet.
I toss my mesh bag into the cab of my truck. I belt my yellow dive knife to my leg. I drive to the water where a small boat waits, and I beat its nose against the waves until Tybee Island shrinks and grows quiet and only the heads of the lighthouse and the water tower can see where I drop anchor and bob. I love this place, its religion and its salty stink. I was born here, and I have come to know it with both hands.
Tybee Island, Georgia. Where the wind skims salt off the Atlantic to coat your hair. The beach ends in a lump of trampled sugar dunes and the dunes end in weeds and a split rail fence, and around the fence are Mountain Dew bottles and cigarette butts and a man sleeping in someone's abandoned towel while the locals and retirees mingle and bump in cinderblock bars painted yellow and blue. And beyond that, under the black water ocean and my boat and me, there is an atomic bomb.
The blast radius is something like a mile. That's enough to eat the beach strip. Third degree burns will be doled out until the ten-mile mark—that's enough to give the fat-cat marsh mansions on Wilmington Island a tan. I can imagine it, the detonation so long after the bomb went under the waves in the fifties. The water rising up asudden, atomic steam tearing into town and flattening the little bars, the snow cone joint, the bumper pool place, my father's church.
God knows what'll set the bomb off after all these years. An underwater rift will open and the Earth will clamp it in the fissure, squeeze it to bursting. Maybe the core has been decaying this whole time—collecting heat in some arcane conversion and that'll be the trigger for a chain of deathly math, an equation that takes sixty years to reach its sum, and the bomb has been waiting smugly on the grey-sand bottom, dreaming of mushroom cloud sheep while the white bottoms of tourist feet go flashing overhead and aluminum beer cans settle like fresh powder on the ocean floor.
In the green fog of the water, I collect cans, slipping them into my mesh bag and marveling how they reappear each week, rolling on their side so far down in the water, slowly rocking back and forth with the tide, as if on the moon. I see them winking in the bent light. An invitation. Each Sunday I come here, diving for trash, looking for fish, the passing blur of a dolphin, whatever, always working my way to the bomb.
Do you believe in God? And if so, can you slip your hand beneath his shirt? Feel his chest rising?
If you fill your lungs with air and dive down, letting the anchor line lead you until it turns to chain and then a grey-steel foot, and if you pick the trash from around your god's drowned body and, as you do, feel his heat emanating, real or imagined, what would you do next? Would you have the courage to keep it to yourself? Would you have the courage to come up for air and return? To press your body against the vessel and search for where the chemical warmth feels most real in your hand? Slide your fingers beneath the fins and fans and guidance equipment. Feel it, not angry or omniscient but alive. Feel it, the summit of creation—the single cell that split to grow a tail and a brain and then a high altitude bomber and this shell, like a cell, for an atom to split and scatter you to the stars. From whence you came and may come again—maybe you have, countless times, come again. Anyway, I have that kind of courage.
I'm not crazy. I don't want the bomb to blow. But, when I dig my feet into the sand and lift my mask so far down in the murk. When I press my bare face to the rusty metal and listen for whatever kind of heartbeat lives inside. I imagine it still—the blast.
When I surface, my hand gripping the bow of the boat and the ocean poured out around me, smooth as glass, the sounds of Tybee Island drift out to me over the water: the families coming down to the beach with their lunches in wicker baskets under their arms, rolling out their long colored beach towels, planting umbrellas like the first flags on a new world. I am warmed. I am cozied in my knowledge that they are, all of them, living, drinking, roasting their bodies brown in the shadow of the bomb. There is no need to pray. They are lounging on blankets or else stooped over buffing sunscreen into their child's back, thinking about the football games or the meals to come or the screws that might follow, and all the while they are in the radius of something larger than themselves. Something that can reach out and touch them. Something cased in steel.
Beyond the Spanish tile roofs, I see the dome of the church. In it, my father is reading, and all around him is a power he cannot see. A humming, buzzing, whispering atomic power that will, one day, level this town. The bomb will blow the stained-glass windows and solid walls off of my father's house and in the same breath, burn the streets to gold.