“The Diving Board” by A.K. Small


His name was Heath. For the candy bar, his mother once said. He was fourteen that summer and way too lanky for his age. The hair on his head and under his armpits grew thick and dark—manly. Shaggy bangs fell down his face, always covering his eyes and leaving bare his most noticeable feature: super sensual lips that loved to rhyme and push out freestyle rap. Around his neck, he wore a lucky shark’s tooth.

On most days, Heath attended Woodland High. He had no father. His mother, Beverly, a big woman, managed Ruby’s diner. Embarrassed by her red and white striped suit or maybe the way it was so taut across her large bosom, not to mention her ugly opaque stockings and silly hat, Heath never told anyone about her. At school, he kept his distance, which made popular kids, especially the opposite sex, hover near his locker. When they asked about personal stuff like his rhymes and his hair, where he got it all from, Heath shrugged, then sometimes divulged that he was the spitting image of his father though he’d never seen him.

His favorite day was the last day of school when Ruby’s high season kicked into gear, his mother was so busy wiping down tables and yelling orders at part-time waitresses that she hardly came home at all. Heath then knew that true freedom was on its way, that all he had to worry about were things like impressive dives off the three-meter board into the deep blue water of his neighborhood pool. So, that first week of July, when he walked with his baggy trunks riding low on his hips around the Belmont Hills Swimming pool, Heath tried not to semi-nod at all the girls that blatantly stared at him and at the tooth that dangled from his chest. They’d freeze, burning the soles of their feet on scorching concrete, in the hope that he might sweep his bangs from his eyes and rap something to one of them. Except Heath never did.

What he liked was to climb up the diving board, his long legs sprawled open à la Spider-man. On the ladder, the electric blue chlorinated water hypnotized him and urged him to jump. But Heath calculated. He took his time. He moseyed his way across the narrow bouncy board, making up lyrics to himself.

“Life’s a hazard even at the top,
Don’t get caught up in it or you might jump.
Bastards want you. They’re trying to destroy you.
Don’t push up on girls, or they might fault you.
Then, you’ll be getting a full time job, like your damn mother,
And, never find joy coz you’ll keep living like f-in sore loser.”

At the tip of the board, Heath made sure that all the girls’ faces tilted toward him before he plunged. The view from up there was always shocking. Everything felt sharper, more exciting. It was as if the whole world gazed at him. Sometimes, at the very edge, Heath would close his eyes, stop rapping, and think for one second that he was the sun. In the dry breeze, a current of pleasure shot through him. The world below momentarily sparkled. The picnic tables, the hot dog stand, the lawn, filled with towels and squealing girls, even the toddlers running with fluorescent floaties on their arms, were all bright and shiny. Sometimes Heath tucked and spun. Sometimes he shot upward and dove. Sometimes he put his back to the water and flipped.

By week two of summer, Heath knew that Maggie from Baldwin Academy would be the last girl to inhale again after his dives. Through his bangs, Heath had been observing her. She’d wait for him to cut through water, to poke his head back up and to shake his heavy hair. She’d even sit up straighter to make sure he safely placed his hands onto the silver ladder. She’d allow herself to breathe and to release her grip from her own plastic lounge chair only once he’d come out of the deep end and began free-styling. He liked that a random private school girl could stop her own breath to monitor his. This must be love, he thought.

The first time Maggie said something to him, they were standing by the snack bar. “What are you getting?” she asked.

She stood in line behind him and Heath’s friend, Paul. She came up to Heath’s shoulders. Though she wore a pink bikini and her voice was high, something about her, Heath thought, was kind of boyish. Maybe her legs, the way they bowed like a soccer player. He didn’t like all the freckles on her face either, the way they fell down her arms like dirt. Aside from her long strawberry-blond ponytail, Maggie reminded Heath of Paul.

“Hot dog and a donut,
Maybe a fat drink.
Life’s too short to dilly dally
When you’re on the verge of gettin’
In the thick o’ things,” Heath sang.

Paul backed him, pumping his lips into his fist. For a little while, aside from their mouths pushing out and making music, the whole line was silent. But then Heath stopped.

“Dunno,” he answered, making sure that his chest faced forward and that his hair fell in his eyes.

Maggie sighed. “I’m getting French fries and a milkshake,” she said. “Want some?”

What grade was she in? Seventh? With only two dollars in his hands and the remnant of dry cereal for breakfast, Heath would have liked a shake, but he wouldn’t share with freckle face in a million years. That would give her the wrong idea. What would he do with a girl like her? “Nope,” he answered.

Paul bought an ice cream sandwich. Heath: an extra large Mountain Dew. When they left the snack bar, Heath made sure not to turn toward Maggie. He focused on the sound of his flip-flops smacking against the concrete. Under the sun, he and Paul sat on the pool wall. They banged their bare feet against the stone, looking at no one and at everyone.

“That girl with the pink bikini has it for you,” Paul said. He wiped his sticky hands on his swim trunks. He wore a purple SPF sun shirt that was way too big for him. Chocolate stuck to his upper lip and he smelled like sunscreen. “I saw it when you were free-styling. The way her eyes went all googly. Bet she’d give you a blow job.”

Heath grinned, then gulped Mountain Dew. “Yeah?” he said. “Wanna jump from the board again?”

Paul pushed his hand down his swim trunk. “Nah. The word blow job’s giving me a boner. People will notice.”

Heath checked out Paul’s hardly swollen trunks, the ones with little crab designs on them. He shrugged then glanced in Maggie’s direction but she was turned sideways on her lounge chair. She shared her snacks with a fat girl.

“Come on, Paul. Don’t be a wuss. Let’s swim,” Heath said.

But before the two of them could get up, a woman three times their age wearing a loose fitting linen tunic and a cowboy hat stopped in front of them.

“Is one of you Heath?” she asked.

Heath stared at his toes. He semi raised his hand as if he were being called in class.

“I’m Isabelle,” the woman said. “Maggie’s mom.”

“Dang,” Paul spurted. “I smell trouble.” Then, getting up, he pulled on his swim trunks and added, “See ya in the pool, Sucker.”

The words trouble and sucker resonated. Cymbals in Heath’s ears. All at once, noise amplified. Children yelled. A lifeguard blew his whistle. Heath and Isabelle didn’t say anything for a moment. She sat on the wall next to Heath where Paul and his boner had been seconds before. Her thigh, the one crossed on top of the other, seemed to glimmer beneath the tunic’s thin black linen. She was barefoot and wore red nail polish on her toes. The afternoon was hot. It was hard to concentrate on anything.

“Maggie’s mentioned your name,” she said, then cleared her throat. “She’s a sweet girl.” Again, cleared her throat. “Don’t hurt her feelings, all right?”

Heath nodded. The way she cleared her throat was the beginning of a song. He could hear it marching around in his brain next to the cymbals, that first line of beats shouting at him.

“Do you ever look people in the eye?” Isabelle asked.

Maybe because she was a grown up, Heath felt he had to. He pushed his bangs from his face and looked at her.

Isabelle smiled, an inviting yet puzzled kind of smile. “I had no idea your eyes were so blue. Maggie’s right. You’re handsome for a teenager.”

Heath took huge swigs of his Mountain Dew. He tried not to think about the difference between his mother and Maggie’s mother.

“See ya around,” she said. Then pushed herself off the wall and left.

Beneath her cowboy hat, her hair was the same color as Maggie’s except brighter. Like Heath himself, Isabelle was tall and willowy. Except that from the back, her hips were wide, wider than all the girls that traipsed around here. And, her hips, they swayed ever so slightly beneath the linen shirt in a way that made Heath want to run after her and ask if he could ask Maggie out on a date. Not because he wanted to ask Maggie out, but because he’d get her mother’s attention again. The crinkles around her eyes would dance and Heath would feel the same energy he felt up on the board, down here on the ground.

But Heath, again, controlled himself. He jumped into the water and wondered if Paul was right about the blowjob, and if Maggie was always this nice, if she’d offer him food again, even though he’d been kind of mean to her. He also wondered about her Isabelle? What she might do with a boy. But then overwhelmed at the idea, at what her wide hips were capable of, Heath chased Paul across the deep end. They played Marco Polo. When Heath looked up and out to see if Maggie was sitting up straight, like she did when he puffed his chest out on the diving board, Heath was disappointed. Maggie and her mother had left. Their towels were gone. Their fat friend, too.

* * *

At home, late at night, Heath couldn’t get comfortable. He lay half-asleep in his sweaty bed. Like a worm hooked on a line, he squirmed. His bedroom window was open. Crickets buzzed. His mother yelled and clanked the dishes he didn’t do. All the noise made him crazy. Words flooded his dreams—Jump. Bang. Blow. Push. Me. Pimp. Old lady. I can’t get enough of you. Blow jobs. Crabs, don’t go. I said no. No snacks. Snack on me. Yeah. I said, snack on me, Candy boy. Heath woke, startled, his heart beating like the best rap song of 2011. Relax. He pushed his face into a dirty pillow and smelled sleep. But then, all he could think of was the black linen, how Isabelle’s skin glimmered beneath it as if the sun had gotten trapped there. Trapped between her thighs. Isabelle’s thighs. Is. A. Belle. Izzy.

“Izzy,” Heath called, his teeth biting down into his pillowcase, his own narrow hips grinding into the creaky twin mattress.

* * *

For the next few weeks, Heath befriended Maggie. But her mother didn’t seem to notice. Most days, Isabelle reclined on a plastic chaise, reading from a fat book with her cowboy hat low on her forehead. She seemed slightly annoyed to be by the water with swarming bees and overfilled trashcans. Once in a while, she shaded her eyes and watched as kids jumped from the diving board. Heath made up lyrics after lyrics about her. Her grownup body parts came surging in his head the way beats did. All he could think of now were slender wrists, round shoulders, the space between her front teeth—and her hips, their width, the way her spine curved into a J.

The sick sensation he felt when he looked at his mother yanking on her egg white tights in the morning turned into crazy longing when this other mother lifted the black linen tunic above her head, revealing a one-piece bathing suit cut high on her legs. Oh, yeah: Izzy. That black spandex sucking her in, making her catch her breath. Under his shaggy bangs, Heath couldn’t stop staring.

“You keep looking over in Maggie’s direction,” Paul said, swatting at a lazy bee one early afternoon. A white streak of sunscreen covered his nose. “Why don’t you tongue her already. Then get back to free-styling.”

Heath shrugged. Maybe, he thought. That might calm him down.

“Come on, Fucker! Go get that,” Paul said. “Or, let’s go get popsicles already.”

“I don’t want popsicles,” Heath said, then added, “Be right back.” He marched, as in a dream, to where Isabelle was reading. “Hey,” he said, wondering what on earth he might say next.

“Hi.” Isabelle lifted the cowboy hat from her forehead. Sweaty strands of short hair stuck to her temples.

“Can you follow me in the locker room. I need to talk to you.”

Maggie who’d been sunning on a towel lifted herself up onto her elbows. Her pink bikini shone too bright in the light. “Me, you mean?”

“Nah,” Heath said. “Her.” He pointed his chin in Isabelle’s direction. “It’s about lyrics for a song. I wanted an adult to hear them.” He tried to smile through his bullshit.

“I guess.” Isabelle sighed as she stood up from her chair and plopped her book down. As they walked near the kiddy pool to get through to the locker room, Isabelle waved at one of the mothers who knelt in the water. The woman held a small child in her arms. Heath wondered if Isabelle was the kind of mother who took baths naked with her baby. The thought made him giddy, light on his feet.

“Alright, sing,” Isabelle ordered seconds later inside the empty boys locker room.

In her black bathing suit, she crossed her arms under her breasts and waited. One of the showers was on but no one was rinsing. The smell of damp bathing suits and feet lingered. A pair of goggles had been carelessly thrown on the middle bench, the one Heath and Paul used to change everyday. Maybe, they could sit down.

Heath swallowed then approached her and swept the bangs from his face.

“You’re not rapping,” Isabelle said.

Outside, children laughed. Sunshine filtered through dirty windows. The hair around her face had dried and stuck out like a halo. Her eyes were round, perplexed beneath arched eyebrows.

“This is about Maggie, isn’t it?” she whispered.

Heath shook his head. He touched his shark’s tooth once, then leaned over and kissed Isabelle full on the mouth, the way he’d dreamed it and practiced it so many times with his pillow at night. He clutched her hips with his hands and pressed her to his swim trunks. His lips swallowed hers. Their tongues met. For what felt like an eternity, warmth flowed between them like the best song ever sung. Heath’s brain wrapped around itself. He saw the pool’s blue water, the way the board rippled beneath his feet as he spun and spun into the summer air, then he saw his mother dancing at Ruby’s holding up a tray full of shakes. How sharp the whole world was, that electric current pulsing through him down here on the ground.

Isabelle’s smack caught him off guard. Heath lost his balance. An unexpected blow against his cheek. Swift and painful.

“What the fuck?” She backed her hips away, wiping at her swollen mouth.

Heath’s bare feet pressed into the damp concrete. More, more, he thought. God, this mother. The red nail polish on her toes. Her cheeks went from flushed to pale. He tried to explain.

“I just—”

But Isabelle was already turning around. She banged her knee against the edge of the bench, and firmly wrapped her fingers around the locker room’s door handle.

“Izzy wait.”

“Izzy?” Isabelle smirked. “No one calls me Izzy.”

“Sorry,” Heath said. He shoved his bangs from his face, showed her the hurt and confusion in his eyes, and wished for lyrics or words to flood him. But nothing came.

“Not because you’re sexy can you get away with kissing whomever, whenever. Who do you think you are, little punk? Stay away from my daughter.”

She left slamming the locker room door behind her.

No! Wait. You got it all wrong.

Heath went straight to the diving board. He would show her she wasn’t “whomever,” that it wasn’t “whenever.” This was Belmont Hills Swimming Pool and he loved her. He counted his steps to the ladder. Adrenaline shot up his spine. Sixty-nine.

“Wait for me,” Maggie was now saying, trailing him in her too bright pink bikini. “Heath wait. God, what did my mom tell you? How embarrassing!”

But Heath couldn’t hear her. He focused. He hummed his mother’s old song, the one Beverly sang to him when he was little, as he climbed the ladder. 99 bottles of pop on the wall,
 99 bottles of pop. If one of those bottles should happen to fall, 98 bottles of pop on the wall.

“Wait up,” Maggie kept saying. “Heath!”

98 bottles of pop on the wall,
 98 bottles of pop. If one of those bottles should happen to fall,
 97 bottles of pop on the wall.

By the time Heath walked his way to the edge of the diving board, he was still counting, humming, and concocting the most miraculous dive of them all. Birds flew ahead blurry in the sky. Isabelle was watching. This grand dive’s for you, Baby. Afterward—after the dive—after he’d tuck and spin, after he’d unfold his body like a giant kite into the summer sky, after the whole slew of girls applauded his exploits, Izzy would slip into the deep end and corral him. Yes. Heath knew it. Under the water, she’d fold her legs around his waist, Heath would grab her hips, and they would kiss for a very long time. Heath curled his toes on the very edge. The rough texture scraped him.

“Izzy!” Heath yelled.

Beneath him, the pool like a blue popsicle was postcard still. Not a wave rippled. Long shadows cut through the blue. The sun dipped in the sky.

“Watch me!” Heath yelled once more.

He lifted his arms above his head, his palms touching. He jumped up and down, straightening his toes, allowing the board to bounce more and more until he leaped so high into the air that he lost his whereabouts. Hips, legs, swollen lips, slender wrists—all of it disappeared. As he tried tucking his knees into a summersault, his chin stuck out. Gravity pulled him down, and Heath banged his forehead against the corner of the board. His lyrics, beats, and rhythm, his high school dreams, and all the words he clasped resounded within him. One huge bong pierced through his skull.

As Maggie and Paul shouted his name, as all the girls tilted their heads upward and shrieked, Heath saw Isabelle, the red of her nail polish dripping on his fingertips. Then, his body and mind went slack, the fall causing a great splash below. When the paramedics fished him out and pushed wet bangs from his face, when they gave him mouth to mouth, felt a tremor coiling up his arm and air returning to his lungs, someone, perhaps yet another mother, cried, as she leaned by the side of the pool and stared at the gash on Heath’s forehead.

“Jesus! Whose son is this? Whose son is this?”

And, there was no answer.

A.K. Small is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and has studied with various writers, including Ann Hood, Caroline Leavitt, Dave Jauss, Brad Barkley, and Roxana Robinson. She also holds a BA in English from the College of William and Mary. She attended The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf, and was invited to join the Tin House summer workshop. She is a member of the International Women Writers Guild and is currently at work on her first novel, The Rules of Adultery. She resides on the main line with her husband and three daughters.

To read A.K. Small’s comments on Nancy Werking Poling’s “Woman with a Snubnose Revolver,” click here.

Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
“The Diving Board” makes us understand that we don’t always know the true motivation or drive behind other people’s actions. We never really know what our friends and colleagues are dealing with at home, their relationship with their parents or spouse, friends and neighbors, not really, not if we don’t ask, and not if they don’t tell us. Instead, it’s more often easier (and natural) to make assumptions and form perceptions about people we know, and people we know of, based on their actions (and sometimes by how they look), never really caring about the pain behind their motivations. Heath is not an abused kid, but he is numbed by the intense embarrassment he feels for his mother, shaping the perceptions he has of the world around him, and most critically, of himself.

Comments on this story by Allan Shapiro, author of “self-awareness”
A most interesting little character study. A teenager trying to work through love and sexuality. Fatherless and practically motherless, there really is no clear definition for Heath as to what love is, no basis for comparison except the love he received from his mother, probably only when he was much younger. Add a massive amount of teenage hormones and things become quite confusing, except for the character’s desire, of course.

I also love the closed setting of the swimming pool, like a hotbed of teenage sexuality, with Heath above it all on the diving board, separated from it, but also almost the reason for it, as if it is all there only for him.

And finally, I loved the poetry/rap in this piece. For me poetry, and prose for that matter, is all about trying to put into words things that have no simple definition. And for Heath, it’s almost reflexive, as if he has no control over it. And the one time he needs it, when he’s feeling very powerful things that don’t make sense to him, his words fail him, and he fulfills those feelings with action, which eventually leads to the tragedy of being human, not a God on a diving board.

Great work, and like all great works, completely open to the reader’s interpretation, malleable and engaging, meaning different things to different people.

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