by Fred D. White

Jimmy Jack Carnes strikes Ramón in the head with a rock and flees like the coward he is. I chase after him, and soon as he sees me, stops in his tracks, spreads his arms. ‘Come and get me!’ I freeze—rushing him would be suicide. ‘You’re a sack of shit, Jimmy Jack!’

And he rushes me, kicks me in the balls.

Ramón appears, blood dripping from his head and looking murderous. Jimmy Jack flips him off and runs.

‘Hey-y-y, Gerald my-man.’ Ramón helps me up. ‘You got cojones the size of cantaloupes.’

‘Not anymore,’ I gasp.

‘Pain’ll go away soon.’

‘You’re bleeding,’ I manage to say. I pull off my t-shirt and wrap it around his head like a turban to quench the bleeding.

‘Thanks, man. Hey, come over to my place; I teach you cool bike tricks.’

Ramón’s bicycle tricks included coasting with one foot on the seat, the other on the handlebars. ‘Thanks, but not into that.’

‘Thought you had nuts, man.’ He tells me about his father, Luis, a swimmer and racecar driver who was killed on the track last year. ‘My daddy comes alive inside me when I show him I got testicles.’

‘Okay, what the heck.’

Ramón’s favorite stunt is coasting downhill on his block, hands in the air. ‘You think you gonna wipe out—but if you stay perfectly balanced, you don’t.’ I watch him perform the maneuver. At one point he nearly does lose control when he brakes suddenly as a car backs out of a driveway.

‘Your turn, Gerald,’ he says when he returns.

‘No freaking way. Stunts like that are crazy.’

‘You saying my daddy was crazy?’

‘Actually, I’m too chickenshit.’

He laughs. ‘Then you need to learn a few things about how to be a man.’

Ramón shows me some of his “easier” tricks, like jetting up his makeshift ramp and twisting around in mid-air. I try and try but wipe out every time.

He scratches his head. ‘Maybe you not chickenshit after all,’ he says. ‘Just slow.’

Ramón’s mother Felicia Gutierrez is a seamstress at the clothing store where my mother works as a sales clerk. ‘Felicia’s got a screw loose,’ Ma says behind a pall of cigarette smoke. ‘Sits hunched over her sewing machine crying half the time.’

‘Her husband was killed in a race car accident, Ma.’

‘And that kid of hers—Ramundo—sounds like a delinquent.’

‘His name is Ramón.’ I suppress the urge to tell her that she should talk about delinquents, she with her latest sleazebag boyfriend who’d show up crocked and grope her crotch in front of me. Instead, I storm out of the house.

The next day Ramón invites me for a swim at the community pool, where they have a high dive. ‘Bet you too chickenshit to even jump off the low-dive.’

‘Hey, I chased after Jimmy Jack, remember?’

‘Yeah, but it takes big balls to dive off that high board.’

‘Is that all you think about is balls?’

‘Without balls you just a pansy-boy!’

‘Five bucks says I can do it.’

‘Deal!’ We shake hands.

I follow Ramón up the metal ladder to the high board, trying not to think of how I am being shamed into this. On the diving platform he stretches, kisses the silver crucifix around his neck, dances up and down, dashes forward and swan-dives into space. He slices through the water, surfaces quickly, shakes jet-black hair from his eyes, and swims to the side of the pool. He looks up, grinning, ‘Dive, Gerald big-man!’

The water glimmers a terrifying distance below.

‘Dive, Chickie-Dickie!’ yells some walrus-shaped kid.

Ignoring the alarms in my head, I step onto the board and bounce.

Walrus Boy cups his mouth. ‘DIVE, CHICKENSHIT!’

I extend my arms and leap off.

I know instantly that I’ve blundered: I’m plummeting horizontally and strike the water belly-first. It feels as if my gut has split open. I scream inwardly from the pain, curl into a ball and surface to crackling laughter. As I crawl out of the pool, Ramón puts his arm around me. ‘Pain but no gain, huh, man?’

I make the mistake of telling Ma what happened. She must have confronted Felicia, insisting she tell her son to stay away from me, because in school next day, Ramón hisses, ‘You mama one messed up bitch, gringo.’

I bite my lip, thinking he has a point.

That is when Ramón starts hanging out with the Cuts, a gang with red skull decals on their black jackets, and who spit at anyone walking past them.

‘Hey, Belly-flop!’ Ramón shouts when I walk toward him and his new buddies. He scrapes his nails with a stiletto blade. I decide to move past them, and they burst out laughing. ‘Show us the splotch on you belly, Fish-belly!’ yells the tallest of the Cuts.

The next morning, in homeroom, Swann, the Vice Principal, announces over the intercom that Ramón Gutierrez was killed instantly when his bicycle spun out of control on a steep downgrade and slammed into an oncoming truck. I bolt out of the classroom, cupping my mouth and run to the lavatory where I puke up my breakfast. At home, it is clear from my mother’s ashen face that she has heard the news from her boss.

Later that afternoon, I return to the community pool, swim a few laps to limber up; then climb up to the high dive, and without a second’s hesitation, dive gracefully into the water.

Fred D. White’s fiction and humor have appeared most recently in Better Than Starbucks, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Deep Overstock, The Citron Review, and Fiction Southeast.

A professor of English, emeritus (Santa Clara University), he is the author of several books on writing, including The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus and Writing Flash. Fred lives in Folsom, CA.