computer keyboard beside a box of bandaids

Internet Minister, First Wedding

We are gathered here today to celebrate the love and marriage of Ann and Benjamin. Just a statement of fact to start, an irrefutable assertion, for why would all these people gather along the banks of the Guadalupe River in Texas in July? He has been told that when you begin writing, write what you know and he knows at least that fact, if nothing else. Who would dispute this? There could be someone, but most likely such a person would not be invited to attend. He positions himself under the arch-altar, an artifice of branches, rent into a solid structure reminiscent of British paganism, though he knows this wedding is not of the pagan sort, so he doesn’t include that in his opening remarks. He imagines how the congregation will look in a few hours sitting on bales of hay in dresses and hats and slacks and pearl snap shirts and shorts and flip flops, their eyes wavering, wet, smiling, and their lips open slightly in anticipation. A welcoming, yes, they will expect to be welcomed to this beautiful setting because, while some people have grown up running down to this bank to jump into this river and swim in its cool waters, others like him have never been here, and he would hate for them to feel like strangers during the most important ceremony of Ann and Benjamin’s lives. Welcome. He chuckles at the sparseness of his thoughts. Good start, he jokes with himself, continuing to chuckle, but he soon stops because guests would find it odd to see the minister laughing alone while standing under the altar just hours before the wedding. Let’s try again: welcome family and friends of Ann and Benjamin, welcome to all those who have traveled a long way to be here today, and welcome to this beautiful place. Not bad. The space is beautiful, a plain running along a hill of soil and tree and rock, whose flank has been adorned with a winding stone staircase. But what about all the people in attendance who come from the outskirts of Texas? If he does not mention them, will he not be excluding them from the congregation? So next to the phrase, who have traveled a long way to be here, he inserts, and to all the native Texans, and he nods in approval.

The minister pulls out the ceremony agenda, checks off ‘Greeting’, and makes his way toward Ann. It says here: reading by Cathleen, Ann’s cousin, he says. Would you like me to instruct people at this time? Ann pulls the agenda toward her and furrows her brow. Why yes, that would be appropriate, don’t you think? Absolutely; will there be anyone standing at this time? Well, Benjamin and me and the bridal party, we’ll be standing the whole time. And after the reading, this Quaker Silence, I should introduce it? Yes, you know what it is, don’t you? I’m afraid I don’t. It’s a tradition where members of the Quaker community sit together and reflect in silence, then share their thoughts in front of community. Ah, I see; it says so here on the agenda. Why don’t you say something like when Ann and Benjamin attended Earlham they were inspired by the Quaker tradition of silence where the community sits together and reflects on the couple and their marriage. Sounds good. Anything else? Yes, should people stand when they share their thoughts or will they be sitting? They can stand, it doesn’t matter, but I think most will sit. Okay, sounds good. Is there anything else? Not right now. Well, if you have any other details to iron out, you know where to find me. Thanks.

The minister trudges over to the lean-to next to the riverbank, his legs suddenly sluggish, and plops down on one of the cloth lawn chairs positioned underneath. His swimsuit rides up his legs and crotch and he pulls it down as furtively as possible because even though ministers’ suits, like non-ministers’, are apt to ride up at the most embarrassing times, ministers have to figure out a graceful way to fix them. If he can even call himself that, a minister, because what training does he have? The bar for certification has been so lowered that all you need to do to become a minister is fill out your legal name and date of birth on the ordination page of the Universal Life Church’s website and you are one. Besides, the state of Texas requires no documentation to prove one is a minister when signing a state of Texas marriage license, which is why a person ordained three weeks ago, having received his certificate of ministry in the mail for $16.89, most of which went to shipping and handling, could officiate a wedding. The anxiety that he might be exposed as a fraud causes the minister to sweat droplets that smell sour like overripe fruit, and he considers whether he should announce to Ann and Benjamin that he will be removing himself as celebrant or officiant or whatever he might call himself. He returns to his pad, reciting his greeting as if he is offering a prayer. Imagine, if in the middle of his greeting he forgets his words and is reduced to a string of stutters so he must pull out the sheet of paper he’s been scribbling on from his pocket, ruffling it as he opens it while the congregation waits without complaint, out of politeness. The sound of the crinkling paper bounces around in his mind. Since the ceremony will be outside, he doubts there will be a microphone, so most people wouldn’t be able to hear the paper, but still, they would see him fumbling and sweating. Welcome. Welcome family and friends of Ann and Benjamin. Welcome all who… (rustle, rustle, rustle) one, ah, moment please (rustle), yes, all who traveled long distances to be here. He hopes he can internalize it all in time, and he still has to write what he’ll say when introducing the Quaker Silence. He has yet to see the vows.

One of the cousins–there are a lot of them, so he doesn’t remember his name–­­­throws the rope swing to the minister’s left, scrambles up the mini staircase to the wooden platform, and catches the rope with both hands. He lifts his legs, pulls his body to the rope, and glides over the grass and the mud and the water. When the rope reaches its apogee from the platform, the cousin rotates his body so he’s facing downward, releases the rope, and drops like a spear into the water, impressive considering the point of origin. I could never do that, the minister thinks. Everybody’s got to jump off the rope swing! Benjamin declares, and more relatives and friends of all ages and backgrounds, some coming from as far away as East Asia–suddenly populate the grass as if spontaneously generated. The minister scrunches his body and holds his pencil millimeters over the pad as if he is in the middle of recording a thought. Hey Rev! Jump off the rope! Benjamin shouts. The minister acts, at first, as if he doesn’t hear, while friends and cousins and friends of friends whoop and holler on the rope swing and near the platform and chatter in clusters on the grass. Groom’s orders! C’mon Rev! The minister looks up as if just stirred from contemplation, pointing to his chest and mouthing me? Benjamin grins and nods his head vigorously, and the minister pictures him doing the same during the exchange of vows and he chuckles as he removes his shirt and heads toward the stairs that descend into the water. The rope, Rev, jump from the rope! The minister is loath to mention his fear of heights, which is why it had taken him two extra minutes to descend the stone staircase to the riverbank in the first place, and why he arrived at the bottom out of breath. He can barely climb to the top of a stepladder without feeling woozy, so he points to his ears and shakes his head. What? says Benjamin. My ears, the minister says, I’ve got swimmer’s ear. Oh! Do you need plugs? My uncle has a pair. The minister shakes his head. I can doggy-paddle. So he pushes off the step and glides toward the river’s middle. The river coddles him like a womb, massaging his limbs, protecting him from the heat of the noonday Texas sun, and the minister is in awe of how a little river, no more than twenty yards across, can bring such joy to an intergenerational and international gathering. All it takes is a little bit of jumping and splashing and floating. Forgetful of his white lie, the minister submerges himself in the grey-green water, keeping his eyes open, though he cannot see much more than six inches in front of his face. He sinks and the sound from all the laughter and play is nothing more than a whisper. An insight strikes him like a pillar of light penetrating his liquid cocoon.

The water is like the Silence.

The minister bursts to the surface, swallowing a chest full of air, his ribs seem barely capable of containing his newly-inspired lungs. He must swim to the river’s edge and haul himself out of the water before his insight leaks out of his brain, he must hold onto the notion exactly as he saw it at first discovery, in all its beauty and complexity, and he must record it exactly as it was seen–not imagined–so he can profess it to the community during the ceremony. He pulls himself up on top of the concrete retaining wall and towels off, chiding his skin with a vigor that could be interpreted as exfoliating. He bounds to his pad and pen, and darts off to a quiet spot away from all the joy because, as we know, you cannot think deeply when joy overwhelms all else. As he retreats further and further from Ann and the Benjamin and their family and friends, he feels hermitic, and he imagines himself as a kindred spirit to St. Anthony, seeking his desert, his cave, his pillar. The minister settles under a tree, using the convergence of root and trunk as a chair, and now he is dry and solitary, and devoid of any comforts that will distract him from communicating his message, but as soon as he places his pad upon his knee and draws the pencil to it, his great idea recedes faster than shadows at the invasion of morning. Suddenly the miniature yellow legal pad is an intractable wilderness. He sketches the crest of the river, a stick figure meant to be himself underneath it, a cluster of stick figures on top laughing and floating and jumping and splashing. He pencils in a trio of lines shooting from each of the mouths representing the noise bouncing above the solitary swimmer. Under the water there are no noise lines, and the underwater environment appears a static one, so the minister would not fault anyone who looks at this drawing and assumes it’s of a man who’s trapped inside an enormous rectangle of Jello. He pictures himself standing in front of the congregation again, Ann and Benjmin on either side of him, and saying, I want you to picture this Quaker Silence as if you’ve been submerged in water. What happens? Can you hear the voices of those above you? No. What do you have left to listen to? Your hearts and minds and the voice of God. What are you up to, Rev? Startled, the minister covers his pad with his hand and tries to tuck it behind him before anyone might see the contents. Benjamin stands over him like a peak, smiling, and the minister thinks, if only I could convey this to the community during the ceremony, this smile, these eyes, no doubt Ann has seen and will see this countenance countless times so she knows, she most certainly does, but maybe others do not. I’m just trying to get my thoughts down for the ceremony, the minister says after a time, though Benjamin doesn’t seem to think it too long. Ah, Benjamin says, when you tore out of the river so suddenly, I thought I’d check if you’re okay. I’m fine, just a bout of inspiration is all, and you know how hard it is to hold onto to it once it comes, the minister says. Benjamin nods. Like trying to hold onto a bull as it charges out of its corral. Exactly, but I’m not sure I didn’t let go too soon. Don’t worry about it, we’re not looking for something profound from you, we’re happy with any kind words you’re able to give us. That helps, the minister responds, but he can’t help thinking they are searching for a type of transcendence in this whole process or else they would not have chosen to publicly profess their love and commitment to one another. Oh, and Ann wanted me to tell you that she’s gone up to start the whole readying process and she would like to write out the vows for you. She’s in the little yellow house. Ok, I will find her.

The minister climbs the stone stairs up the hill, careful not to look behind him and sway and stumble, and when he reaches the point on the hill where he can no longer hear the voices springing from the river nor see the buildings at the hill’s top nor all the family and friends readying the grounds for the party, he feels as if he is a pre-industrial explorer, just for a moment. It calms him. The houses at the top are rustic with log or stone walls and wide porches. The house where Ann and her maids ready themselves is powder-yellow, the shade only a non-frontiersman would think to paint a house on the frontier. Is there something sacred about this space that allows it to act as the staging area for the sacrament of matrimony? The minister laughs at himself: perhaps he is taking his role too seriously, assigning moments of consecration for spaces and buildings and scenes. Who is he to make something holy? The lion’s share of his importance comes from his legal authority, another power he feels he doesn’t possess, though there’s something beautiful in the ability of an ordinary citizen to take legal authority into his own hands. Perhaps we should demand this more in our democracy, the minister thinks. He chuckles again, what has he gotten himself into now? Legal musings? How will that help Ann and Benjamin? He remembers before the couple exchanges their vows, he needs them to acknowledge that they have not been coerced by anyone to marry each other, that they come before family and friends freely. He writes the sentence, First, Ann and Benjamin, do you acknowledge you come here of your own free will and without coercion? He reads it back and it seems stilted. Should he add something like, if there are any objections that these two should be married, speak now or forever hold your peace? That could fit in nicely with the coercion bit, but the minister realizes he’s never attended a wedding where a reverend or rabbi or priest has spoken those words, nor has he seen anyone object to the proceedings of a wedding ceremony except in movies where the reverend or rabbi or priest poses the question and the hero of the movie, the person the bride really loves bursts through the chapel doors or shouts from the balcony that the wedding should stop as the congregation gasps and at least one person faints for dramatic effect. The ire of the villain who is trying to steal the bride from the hero is just a footnote. Come to think of it, the minister has never heard of one instance where this question plays a part in a wedding ceremony, so it seems that it might have been invented by Hollywood screenwriters to keep us all on the edge of our seat. He decides not to include the phrase, and he crosses out and without coercion. Much better.

Ann’s hair is up and her makeup is on, as is the makeup of each of her bridesmaids. She wears a plain white tank top and navy shorts, not booty shorts, but not a long athletic cut either. Her smile expands widely into her cheeks when the minister tells her he’s come to pick up the vows and examine them before the ceremony. She has not yet written them down, so she grabs a notepad usually reserved for grocery lists and daily to-dos and refrigerator notes. Um, she presses the eraser of the pencil into her forehead as she thinks. I had written them down a few days ago, but how did I word them? The minister shrugs. Her face lights up as if she has discovered something for the first time, and she whispers the words as she writes them. Is that it? Does that look good? Looks good to me, the minister says, though he’s only glanced at them. Yeah, no wait, and Ann jots a fourth line below the others. There! Our promises to each other. Is this notepad part of the official ceremony? the minister says with a smile curling at the edges of his lips. Ann laughs and says yes! Didn’t you bless it before you came here? The minister shakes his head, and both of them shriek oh no in mock horror. The minister bestows a cursory blessing on the pad and tears off the top page. Ann wipes invisible sweat from her brow. Now everything’s officially ready. I’ll assign one of my bridesmaids to be the steward of this notepad.

On his walk to the shade of the pecan tree, the minister unfolds the vows and scans them. Today we commit to share life’s journey. A very nice sentiment, though familiar. He pictures Ann and Benjamin climbing mountains, consulting maps and travel guides and various foreign language dictionaries, walking along the shore when the tide is out and the sun is setting while waves massage their toes and wrestle clouds of sand. Part of it seems like a solitary lifestyle, and the minister sees them traipsing through gorgeous settings devoid of people, thrilled to be in each other’s company even if they are the last remaining humans on earth. What makes their ordinary vow seem so wonderful is Ann and Benjamin, unlike other couples, would love each other even if no one else became part of their journey. On the other hand, the vow coincides nicely with parenting, and the minister recalls the times when his parents took him and his sisters on family vacations, manning the helm of the minivan, flipping through the most recently published U.S. Road Atlas searching for the next Great American Stop along the way. He remembers the fields overrun by corn, the herds of cattle sprinkled like salt and pepper on a plate of grass. He remembers the time when he was teenager, fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, sitting in the backseat, a piece of luggage shielding him from his sister, and waking up to find that he had acquired a full-blown erection apropos of nothing, merely a process of his body, although he didn’t realize it yet. Dread flooded his chest and limbs all the way down to the tips of his fingers and toes, though his face was a rigid mask of mock sleep. What if his sister saw it? What if she thought he got an erection because of her? What if he had gotten it because of her? What if she alerted his parents? He shifted his body to face the car window as if in a fit of restlessness. Through the slits of his eyelids, the minister, though he neither called himself that at the time nor thought he would ever be one, watched the rolling hills of Kentucky as his dread nested in his gut. He breathed quiet, regular breaths, hoping that time would conquer, but his predicament had surprising staying power, so he decided to take matters into his own hands so to speak and project unsexy images into his head such as the parish church down the street, the fern in his mother’s backyard garden, his sixth grade math teacher who was an old, withered smoker who wheezed as she spoke and was susceptible to bouts of wet coughing. As if his body was rebelling against him, his crush, Heidi Jacobson, flashed into his head, which eliminated all the progress he had made. And not only that, she was naked, though he’d not seen an actual naked women in the flesh before, and his imagination had trouble filling in the details below her shoulders and collarbone, resulting in Heidi Jacobson’s body being nothing more than a haze. Though she wasn’t wearing any clothes, which is all that mattered.

The minister’s body experiences the past dread as an uncomfortable warmth and his sweat from sitting out in the Texas sun mixes with that of anxiety both past and present. He chuckles knowing that, in pledging this oath to one another, Ann and Benjamin will cope with unpredictable fretful teenagers, just like his parents did, perhaps like the minister himself will have to someday. He’s glad the vow goes into no more detail than they will commit to life’s journey. Now, number two, love and commitment.


This day has been full of revelations and it’s while steadying himself inside the porta-john well after sundown that the minister experiences the divine wisdom that a minister’s urine is the same as any other’s in the community and that once his mingles in the blue deodorizing liquid it will be indistinguishable from the rest of the urine in the well. Also, ministers are influenced by booze in the same way that everyone else is and they have to flush it out in the same unseemly manner. As he moves to the portable sink, he chuckles at the fact that his uniqueness is over: he has stood in front of the community with the bride and groom and signed the marriage license all without flashing his certificate of ministry, and now he has dissolved back into the plebiscite where his actions will be forgotten by everyone. Maybe not the actions themselves because all the friends and family here will remember that Ann and Benjamin were married and that they shared their love and commitment in public, but the fact that he presided over them will be forgotten to the extent that people will think back and say, who was the man who married Ann and Benjamin? Was it a man or a woman? For in this day and age, the law cannot discriminate between male and female ministers like it did when the power of God was measured in the strength of stone and gold and silver. I thought it was Ann’s good friend Tilly, they’ll say, and that’ll be fine because Tilly is a wonderful friend and the wedding would have been just as idyllic if she’d been the minister. As he pumps the faucet pedal and lathers his hands in antibacterial soap, the minister realizes that the beauty of the democratic sacrament of marriage is that the minister’s sacredness is given to him by the people and then immediately returned to them. His musing is interrupted by the voice of Benjamin’s best man unwinding an anecdote mid-toast, and the minister panics that he will be asked next to give a few words about the couple and he will not be present to do so. He bursts from the lit porta-john zone and encounters the silhouette of a grand tree whose branches stretch toward the ground and the minister faces the dilemma of running back through the hanging tarps, past the porta-johns and out the other side, taking a wide path around the tree that first takes him farther away from the reception tables, or of navigating the low-hanging branches that have infiltrated his direct path. On account of drunkenness, he chooses the latter, running in a crouch underneath the limbs, which would have been fine had he noticed one branch in particular on the far side that hangs lower than the rest. What originally seems like the most logical choice, absent the crouch-running, ends with the limb lashing his right eye and parts of his cheek and forehead. He flinches as if he’s been slapped but it’s not until he sits at his table that he feels blood trickling down his forehead and his eye swelling shut. He plunges his face into his napkin as if he is wiping his nose and laughs too loudly at the jokes Benjamin’s best man delivers. What choice does he have? He can’t excuse himself again after he’s just returned, and his blood and swelling eye absolutely must not be detected by anyone and interfere with the toasts and dancing. He offers a prayer (or something) pleading that his name not be called to say a few words or offer a blessing especially now. If only he had some collateral to add value to his silent wish. Perhaps now he will be remembered after all: did you see the minister’s face at the reception? Wasn’t he bleeding? Did someone hit him in the eye? Did he get in a fight? Why was he acting so weird during the toasts? Was he high? And so forth.

Luckily, the forehead bleeding is minimal, although the white cloth napkin reveals a slowly expanding red spot, but his eye is throbbing and the scope of his vision is gradually decreasing. When Benjamin’s best man ends his speech, the minister raises his glass of champagne but bows his head as if caught in the middle of contemplation. There are five more toasts, and he can’t keep his head down for all of them, so he lifts it, pretending nothing has happened and avoids eye contact. What happened to you? a man the minister met only hours before, whose name might be Jeff or Jack or Jake, says. What? Nothing. Your eye. What? It’s pretty swollen, do you need medical attention? No, I’m fine, thanks for asking. Did you get in a fight somewhere? Imagine the minister getting in a fight after a wedding. What a riot! No, I didn’t, just a little mishap, that’s all. I’ll say. You’ll say what? A mishap. At that point the minister turns away from the enquirer and calculates the best route to take in order to remove himself from this table without disrupting the remaining toasts and listen to the rest in the security of shadow and darkness. My buddy, his enquirer continues, at that table over there, he’s a doctor and he can take a look at it for you. I told you, I’m fine. What if you ruptured something or scratched your cornea or detached your retina and suffer long-term vision loss because of this? It’s no big deal, but thanks for the offer. He’s very good, I’ll go get him. And his enquirer ambles down the slope to another table, leans to the ear of a man who looks too young to be a doctor and, after they exchange a few words, the enquirer and his doctor friend weave their way up to the minister as Ann’s father delivers his toast. Hi, Reverend, I’m Andy, and Jake told me your eye needs a little attention. Thanks, Andy, but I’m fine, it’s just a few scratches. Well, let me double-check that; could we go inside to a place where there’s more light? And of course the minister can’t say no or make a scene so he follows the doctor to the nearest house. The doctor roots around in the bathroom, procures a first aid kit, and proceeds to examine the minister’s eye. Why don’t you take a seat over there and let me take a quick look. The doctor washes his hands, thoroughly scrubbing between his fingers, under his nails and on the skin almost up to his elbow. The minister takes a seat at the kitchen table and the doctor pulls up a chair next to him. Now, I’m going to keep any sort of touch to a minimum, but I may need to manipulate your eyelids a bit so I can see what we’ve got here. The minister nods but wants to protest more vigorously and extricate himself from the examination. Tell me if what I’m doing here hurts. The minister nods again. The doctor presses the flesh around the swelling with a tenderness of a father inspecting his child’s wound. So is this what you do as a job? Officiating weddings that is. Actually, this is my first one. Really? You looked like a natural out there, like you’d done it dozens of times before. Thanks, that’s too kind of you, but just so you know, I was pretty terrified during the ceremony and all day leading up to it. Didn’t look it, far as I could tell. Ow, thanks. Sorry, have you ever thought of becoming a minister full time?

The minister hadn’t, at least not for a long time, for when one is immersed in the everyday hustle of young professional living, where does one find the time to be spiritual? Let’s see: he spends too many hours a day at the office running various computer models, attending meetings, and filing reports. He tries to keep his social calendar full, juggling friends and opportunities to meet new people since most of his friends are currently transplants and could uproot at almost any time. He dabbles in the dating arena, maintains his online profile, attends just-lunch dates, meets up for drinks, sometimes dinner, hardly for a second or third date, and other times he’s set up by a friend or attempts the bar/party pickup, though his success in those instances is minimal. And with all the socializing, he needs to carve out time for clothes and shoe shopping for both professional and casual situations, grooming, and working out at the gym he realizes now he pays entirely too much for. The time spent with family has diminished, phone calls to mom and dad less frequent and shorter in duration, mere summaries of recent days’ activities. The minister has begun to sweat, whether from the anxiety from anticipated pain, fear of providing the wrong answer to the doctor’s question, or from the shame that he has drifted away from the things and people he once loved. The penlight enveloping his right eye has created a gray-green-brown cloud that hovers over his field of vision and he feels even more vulnerable than he did when he was trying to disguise his injury. Not really, I mean, not for a while since I was a boy, he blurts out, but don’t most American men think about this path at some point in their life? True, true, the doctor agrees, in fact, I’ve thought about it myself until I felt called to medicine, but in some ways I consider myself an empirical minister. I’ve never put the two concepts together before, the minister says. Oh, it’s very logical because what’s the role of a doctor but to tend to the health and wellness of the patient? A minister does the same for his congregants’ spiritual well-being. Yes, the minister muses, you make what I have done sound very noble. Isn’t it though? But the minister couldn’t answer that question. Tell me, why didn’t you act on your inclination to become a minister? the doctor asks as he turns off the penlight and tucks it in his shirt pocket. Why didn’t you? the minister asks. That’s not fair, I already told you, when I chose medicine I felt I had to stay on that path; what is your reason? I don’t know. The doctor applies antiseptic ointment to the open scratches on the minister’s forehead. Don’t know or don’t want to share? Alright, I do, but it’s nothing significant, just a bit embarrassing. I promise I won’t laugh. I guess I didn’t have the courage to commit myself to something in that way; it seemed safer to live as all my friends were living and not to think about my spiritual side, if I even have one. The doctor nods as he places a bandage over the largest cut. Well, you definitely have one, I can tell by the way you sat under the tree to prepare for the wedding ceremony and how you performed as the presider. That’s quite a compliment. It’s one hundred percent genuine, I just think about how I almost didn’t have the courage to pursue medicine and I’m thankful that I did. The minister looks away.

The doctor pats his quads and says, well the good news is your retina is a-okay, your cornea is scratched which isn’t so bad, though it will be irritated for the next week or so, and the swelling from the big whack you took on the eye will go down in a couple of days, after that, you should be back to normal. Thanks, doctor. Call me Andy. Yes, Andy, thanks. The least I could do, be careful out there tonight. I will. The two shake hands and the doctor exits the kitchen and heads back to the reception. The minister leaves the kitchen but walks around the reception area, careful not to cross into the light, and makes his way down the hill toward the river. He extends his arms out front so he doesn’t walk into any more branches and so he can catch himself if he stumbles. His fear is heightened as he descends the stone stairs and if you asked him at that moment why he was walking down to the river in the dark he wouldn’t be able to tell you. He removes his sandals so he can feel the now-cool stones and his anxiety subsides a little. The moonlight reflects off the shimmering water and the river seems a much more foreboding place than it did earlier in the afternoon. The minister reaches up to the rope swing, thrusts it away from the wooden platform out over the water. He scrambles up the platform just in time to grab the handle at its return, nearly tumbling off from his haste, but he pulls the rope to his chest and regains a firm footing. Both the rope and the handle feel alien to him, hard, neither warm nor cool. His palms are sweating and his knees shaking and he takes exaggerated breaths as he bends his knees. When he lifts his feet, he closes his eyes and grits his teeth so he doesn’t scream. His shirt and pants cling to his skin, and at first he tells himself he will not let go, but when his momentum stops, his grip slips from the handle, and in the rush of air and water, he thinks he can hear a chorus singing.