I was thirteen when my mother died, the same age as David when he killed Goliath and cut off his fucking head. My mother’s boyfriend, Gunter, took me in and taught me King David’s Psalm 23. The idea was to skip stones on the bay, throw a flat stone at the water and while it skipped you said as much of the prayer as you could before it sank.
“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not…”
“I shall not want He maketh me li…”
Gunter could skip stones well.
“The Lord is my shepherd He maketh me lie down in green pastures He leadeth me…”
Once you skipped enough stones you eventually got to the shadow of death.
My father was in jail since I was young. According to Gunter, my father was a heathenish blasphemer and switchblade enthusiast. We’d talk about my father because he was a piece of shit, but we never spoke about my mother. After she died, time slowed, the days dragged, infinite mornings led onto an uncountable set of lay-awake evenings.
And fuck Gunter.
And my father.
And fuck her. Fuck. Her. Too.
By fourteen I discovered that Gunter’s favorite saying was Proverbs 3:6, “Acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy path.” And I started getting high. Gunter searched for my hidden bongs and destroyed them. That was our duel.
Our duel about God was similar but reversed. Gunter tried to get me high on religion, but I was more interested in becoming a switchblade aficionado.
Gunter took relief in ocean swimming. And he would swim deep, out to the horizon until, half-exhausted, he’d turn for home. He said it brought him closer to God.
“Closer to death,” I said.
Gunter had a way of smiling that I didn’t always hate. He said you could theoretically swim out far enough that you’d not have the strength to get back in. But it was like trying to bite off your own finger; while anatomically possible, your teeth wouldn’t obey, couldn’t be forced down into the bone. Your mind wouldn’t let it happen.
I had no fear of losing Gunter, and that was the only feeling I wanted our angry God to know about.
I was fifteen when a cyclone ravaged the sea – five-foot walls of white-water rolling in. Gunter stood on the shore in saggy swim trunks and goggles.
“You’ll drown,” I said.
He pointed up. “The power of ritual, son. Believe in something bigger than yourself.”
“You’re fuckin’ crazy.”
Gunter shook his head. “Your language,” he said, wading in.
“How long will you be?”
He pointed up.
An hour passed.
The storm turned east and smote the land. Spumes of ocean spray spat over me like from the mouth of God. I couldn’t see him out there, so I ripped off my shoes, my shirt, got ready to swim out.
Down the beach, a figure waded in, falling, rising. Gunter, goggle-less.
I pretended to sleep as he stood in my bedroom doorway, dripping. I silently thanked whatever it was that let him come back without me having to beg. Gunter’s body made a chair creak in the other room. I listened to his pen on the crossword, to a book’s pages turning over and over.
Sometimes I’d hear her in empty rooms. When I’d walk in she was gone, but like she’d only just left.
At sixteen I went ocean swimming. I swam so deep that the land turned into a thin grey line. The ocean turned into hills like blue elephants. Giant swells lifted me towards the sky and dunked me underwater as their crests broke. I was too tired to go home and I entered a dream state where I was a boy with my head pressed against my mother’s thigh. She walked away but I kept pressing my head against her.
“Stop that, pest!”
“Don’t say pest! You’re not nice to me.”
She let me stand there, holding her.
“Let me go now, baby.”
She lifted my chin, but I was dragged underwater before I could see her face.
Gunter rescued me. Towed me to shore like seaweed. Dragged me up on the sand and gathered me in his arms, water running down his face like tears.
“What are you doing?” he said, his face livid but his eyes soft.
There’s nothing out there, I wanted to tell him, but I was no longer sure.
At seventeen I lied about my age and enlisted in the Navy. The month before orientation, I laid in front of Gunter’s TV, smoking cigarettes. Watching mosquitoes buzz around the window, dying in tiny piles of exoskeleton.
The day I left, Gunter said he hoped I’d come back sometime.
“I have to get away from here,” I said.
“It’s not you.”
He told me that I’d never been a burden and we looked away from each other to the road and other things.
Everything you love is a burden, and you never really let it go.
I was twenty-four when I got news that the ocean had taken Gunter. He and I had exchanged some letters. How are you type shit. How’s the weather.
He said that goodness and mercy were following us through each day of our lives.
At his burial, the sea below the cemetery settled like a bright sheet over a black nothingness.
The mourners read, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want…”
That evening, I remembered the comforting noises Gunter used to make in other rooms when I was a child. The psalm came to my lips, and for a second I felt part of something bigger…
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”