What I Read: THE CONVERT
Here’s the first chapter:
I wasn’t born a cripple. That’s something I did to myself two days shy of my sixteenth birthday. Drunk diving, I tell people when they ask, although technically speaking there was no real diving involved. Just a lot of drunk. I remember the day like it happened last week, even though it’s been twenty-one years.
July in Mississippi is a godawful thing. The day starts heating up before seven in the morning, and by early afternoon the temperature is kissing-close to a hundred degrees. Humidity stays above eighty percent more often than not, and the still, hot air feels like a damp blanket draped over you. The pale blue sky is empty save the almost-white sun, glaring down like the eye of an angry god. The day I broke my back was one of those days.
Just a couple of miles outside of Starkville, where I grew up, the Old South Quarry cuts into the red clay cotton fields like an old battle scar. During the Great Depression the quarry did a booming business, harvesting limestone out of the bedrock to be crushed into gravel and powder for the concrete used by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the construction of structures all across the south. My grandfather was a down-on-his-luck welder and part-time farmer in those days, and spent two years building bridges for the Corps. It seemed like every time I went to church with them on a summer Sunday morning as a child, riding high in the front seat between them in their old green and white farm truck but still barely able to see over the dash, he had a new story to share about someone losing a finger or toe, hand or foot, during the construction of whatever bridge we happened to be crossing. Once he told me about a man buried alive in cement who, as far as he knew, was still encased down there at the base of the pylon holding up the bridge. He would’ve told me more, I think, but my grandmother shushed him up.
When the Depression ended and most people—my grandfather included—found permanent work, business fell off for the Old South Quarry. Limestone was cheaper coming out of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and even though demand was up because of all the post-war construction, the supply from the more mountainous states far exceeded need. By the time I was tugged from my mother’s womb, red-faced and screaming from the gross insult of birth, the quarry had been closed for nearly eighteen years and Starkville teenagers had been swimming there for ten.
On that sunny July day there were four of us piled into Kenny Wilcott’s piece of shit Chevy Nova, roaring down the dirt road that circled around to the back of the quarry where the hole in the security fence was. Trigger Foster—his given name was Jonathan but he’d been Trigger to us ever since he shot himself in the foot on a duck hunt with his older brother when he was twelve—had filched a case of Milwaukee’s Best from the stash his old man kept in the garage, and we were ready for a party. As much of a party four guys can have with twenty-four piss-warm beers and no girls, anyway.
Russ Howard pulled the first beer out of the plastic ring and handed it over to me. It felt like a mug of the Russian tea my mom made for me whenever I was sick. Even with the windows down, the car was an oven, but that didn’t matter. We’d be cool soon enough.
The car hit a pothole and the four of us bounced as one.
“Goddammit, man, watch the road!” Trigger cried. He was sitting up front with Kenny, gripping the dash with both hands. Not long after the duck hunting incident, his older brother had been killed when he thought he could pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two-lane road and lost control of his Trans-Am. The car rolled six times, throwing Trigger’s brother some thirty feet headfirst into a sweet gum tree. Trigger told us later that his head had been split in half right down the middle and most of his brain ended up in the crook of two branches, almost fifteen feet off the ground. He’d been jumpy in cars ever since, not that anyone could blame him.
“Relax, princess,” Kenny said, but he eased up on the gas a little. He rubbed at the top of his head, which had banged into the roof when the car dipped. Kenny was on the junior varsity basketball team with me, and played center because he was so tall. Being several inches shorter—but not short, mind you—I played shooting guard. Between the two of us, we helped the team make it to the quarter-finals the previous year.
Ahead, I could see the rusted chain-link fence surrounding the quarry, and beyond it, the emerald lake sparkling in the summer sun, its color undiluted by the heat haze clinging to the ground. Limestone dust in the water gave it the unique color, reminiscent of exotic Caribbean locations. As we drew closer, I saw schools of bream and sunfish swimming lazily around the shallow edge. The quarry had been carved into the side of a small hillock, and toward the far end where the deep water darkened to near-black, a white stone cliff towered almost fifty feet above the surface. All that was visible of the old office at the top was a glint of glass through the kudzu overgrowth.
Kenny brought the car to a stop just outside the fence and shut it down. Drifts of red dust swirled around us, stirred up by our jostling drive. The air smelled of honeysuckle and the pesticide farmers soaked their cotton plants in to keep the boll weevils down to manageable levels. Out in the open green field, a symphony of grasshoppers crackled and rattled. Trigger relaxed visibly and held his hand over the seat for a beer.
I popped the tab on my own and got it to my mouth before it foamed all over the car, then gulped it down as fast as possible. We didn’t bring it to sit around and sip it like the people in beer ads, after all. Pitching the can through the window into the tall grass, I opened the door to get out, but before I could, I let loose a massive belch. The sound rolled across the water like the crack of gunfire.
“Danny Mac sounds off!” Russ cawed, and pitched me another beer.
Danny Mac. It’s been years since anyone called me that, except for my old buddy Jake Conrad—more on him in a bit—who did it occasionally when he was worked up about something. Usually the government. Maybe the nickname was kind of lame, no pun intended, but hell, who isn’t lame at that age? No matter how pitiful it sounds now, it was far better than my given name of Daniel Edward Mackenzie. Doesn’t that sound stuffy and pretentious? Even now, as forty looms not too far around the corner, I’ll take being called Danny over Daniel any day, though I prefer Dan. Nice, short, and simple.
But then? Then I was Danny Mac.
I drained the second beer almost as quickly as the first, and by the time we scrambled through the hole in the fence and down to the water’s edge, my third was half empty. I was already starting to feel light-headed. We’d been down at the mall all morning, feeding quarters into games in the arcade and hanging out at Camelot Music, and hadn’t bothered with lunch.
The dirt road we drove in on ended at a chained and padlocked gate, and turned to gravel inside the fence. It was the same one the loaded trucks used back when the quarry was in business, and it led right down into the water. Standing at the lake’s edge, you could see the road continuing under the surface as it descended into the depths. To be honest, it always creeped me out a little to float over it and look down through my mask. It seemed so out of place down there, stretching into the murky darkness. A path to nowhere.
The pulverized gravel at the edge of the lake formed something of a beach, and that’s where we spread out our towels. Trigger tied the remaining six-packs together with a piece of old clothesline from the trunk of the Nova and lowered them into the cool green water. We waded out four abreast, hissing reflexively first when the water touched our balls, then our armpits.
An hour later, snorkeling in the middle of the lake, I was as far from sober as I was from the shore. Through my mask I watched the fish and turtles glide far below me, dim dark shapes against the midnight green. From time to time I drifted over underwater meadows of some tall grass, gently swaying in the convection created by the sun’s rays. Pale lime-colored tendrils reached for me out of the darkness like questing fingers, and I thought of dead things slowly rotting down there, just out of sight.
A scream yanked me from my quiet and morbid reflection, and I looked up in time to see Trigger twisting through the air halfway down the cliff. Though he grinned like a fool, his eyes were wide with terror. At the last second, he pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them, hitting the water butt-first in a perfect cannonball. The plume must have shot thirty feet.
Even as the displaced water rained back to the lake Kenny sailed over the edge. He jackknifed and greased in with barely any disturbance at all. Behind me, Russ hooted, and I turned to see him swimming back toward the beach in an awkward stroke somewhere between a dog paddle and a butterfly.
“Wait up!” I called, and started after him.
Trigger surfaced in the distance, sputtering and flailing and bellowing, “My ass! I broke my ass!”
Kenny’s peal of laughter bounced off the vertical walls and doubled, then tripled, until it sounded like a mocking crowd. At the shore, Russ veered over and pulled two beers from the last six-pack, and we drank them as we picked and stumbled our way around the lake to the upper end. From the top of the hill we could see for miles, nothing but verdant green cotton plants against the carmine soil stretching out in every direction. I set my snorkel and mask on a chunk of limestone the size of a suitcase near the precipice. M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” thundered from the boombox sitting with our towels, the sound surprisingly clear outside the enclosing rock sides. A gentle breeze blew in our faces, cooled by the water below. It carried a slightly metallic, clean smell. I gave Russ a dopey smile that was part indescribable happiness, part cheap beer.
“Last one in is queer,” he shouted, and ran for the edge with me hot on his heels.
He sprung away from the drop, twisting around to look at me as he fell, a look of triumph on his face, an image frozen in my memory as the pure essence of summer and youth. I jumped after him, but just as I pushed off, my foot slid in the loose gravel, kicking out behind me like some kind of satirical ballet move, and I tumbled gracelessly over the edge.
The fall is imprinted in the archives of my mind as a series of snapshots taken as I somersaulted toward the water. White rock, speckled with black, far too close. The sky, impossibly blue. The lake, stretching off in the distance. Russ looking up at me, his mouth opening in a scream, Kenny and Trigger blurry smudges in the water beyond him. White rock. Blue sky.
When the workers carved away the hillside to harvest all that stone, they cut it away into a giant series of steps so that each one made a simple path across the face of the rock for them to use. One of those steps jutted out of the face of the cliff two feet below the waterline, forming a shelf six or seven feet wide. It’s pure luck I didn’t plunge headfirst into it and chum up the water with my fool brain. Instead, I hit the water on my back, part of me over the shelf and part over the abyss. Even through the roar in my ears I heard the brittle crack! of my spine as I impacted the edge just below my shoulder blades.
My eyes were open. I could see the disc of the sun through churning water turned cloudy by the lime silt, white and brilliant and uncaring. Even though I must have been going into shock, my mind was preternaturally alert and screamed for me to get to the surface before I drowned. It felt like someone had cinched a nail-studded belt around my midsection and was pulling it ever tighter, but compared to the pain that came later, it was nothing. I had a dim awareness that I no longer felt anything below that fiery circle.
I teetered there on the edge of the shelf for a second, then slipped over, pulled down by the weight of my dead legs. I sank in a dreamy kind of slow motion, desperately trying to use my arms to swim upward, but they didn’t want to obey and merely flapped ineffectually. I grabbed at the rocky wall as it slid by, searching for purchase, but my fingers were twisted into claws and wouldn’t open. I succeeded only in pulling loose a thick rubbery sheet of the pinkish fungal growth we called quarry skin. That stuff seemed to coat everything under the water, soft and slick like the sodden flesh of a bloated corpse.
Pressure built in my ears and lungs as I descended. I fell through a deepening green haze, no longer able to see the sun. No longer able to see much of anything but that single color, slowly bleeding away and leaving only blackness behind. I knew I was dying, but despite it all I felt a calming sense of peace build within me. I don’t know if it was the beer, or God, or just my body starting to give up and shut down, but I found that I wasn’t so concerned about making the transition. Even though I was technically still a virgin.
I saw something gliding toward me through the gloom, one of God’s angels coming with open arms to lead me home to heaven. Hot joy rose in my heart. They told me later it was just Russ, swimming down to catch me by the hair and drag me back up to the shelf.
My recollection of what happened next is hazy. I remember bits and pieces, little snippets of memory spliced together like a movie trailer made with only the worst parts. Lying in the cold water on the shelf, cradled in Russ’s arms, shivering and telling him to stop crying like a little girl, then crying myself when the belt of pain twisted a little tighter. The sun as it slipped out of sight over the cliffs. The flat whupwhupwhup of the LifeFlight helicopter sent all the way from Jackson to get me after a pell-mell drive back to Starkville by Kenny and Trigger to find help. Dizziness from the rotation of the basket as they winched me up, and the feel of the warm rotor wash on my face, upper chest, and arms. Wonderment over why I couldn’t feel it anywhere else.
The next solid memory is of waking up in a recovery room in Jackson General Hospital with my parents on one side of the bed and a strange man dressed in white on the other. Mom’s eyes were red and watery, and Dad kept clearing his throat. That was the first time they ever looked old to me.
“Welcome back, Danny,” the stranger said. “My name is Dr. Feinbaum. Do you know where you are?”
My throat hurt like hell, dry and scratchy like someone took a steel wool pad to it, so I whispered, “Hospital.”
“That’s right, you’re down in Jackson, in the intensive care unit. Do you remember what happened?”
“Good,” he told me, and looked up at my parents. “Very good. Short term memory loss is always a concern in cases like this.”
Reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket, he plucked out a pen and held it in front of my face. “Follow this with your eyes, please.”
I tracked the movement of the pen and wondered why I wasn’t in more pain.
Especially below that spot near my shoulder blades, where I landed.
Good stuff here, folks. I hope you’ll check it out!