Get The Can
by Al Sim

 

 

He was the only haole kid in sight. He was standing in the middle of a tidal channel between the lagoon and the brimless Pacific. They called it Drifterís Reef, but there was no reef out here, just restless green water. He wondered what the Japanese called it when they built the bombed-out causeway he was standing on.

The causeway was made of huge slabs of concrete, stood on edge and bolted together. Narrow gaps a few inches wide separated the slabs. These gaps were filled with water and life. Little day-glo fish swam in the one beneath his feet. He crouched down to get a better look at them. Mike came over and crouched down next to him.

"Pretty neat, yah?" the Japanese-Filipino boy said. "Big schools in da little cracks."

Mike wasnít short for Michael. It was short for Microphone. His father, the air traffic controller, named his first son after the piece of equipment that took him out of the slums of Manila. It actually said "Microphone" on his birth certificate.

The haole boy thought about that while he watched the fish. His name is Microphone. The two boys squatted and the little violet and scarlet and electric-orange fish swim beneath their toes.

"See daí one," Mike said.

His finger stretched toward a tiny, pale green fish.

"Poison. Eat it, you die fast."

The haole boy glanced at Mikeís dark face to see if it was a lie. He couldnít tell. He looked back at the little fish, but it was gone.

"Why would I eat it?"

The other boy shrugged.

"Mebbe you get hungry."

Mike got to his feet and wandered off down the causeway. The haole boy watched the psychedelic schools of tiny fish for a moment longer, then rose and followed his new friend. They stood at the end of the pitted concrete roadway, where an American bomb had neatly severed it. He looked down at his feet for a moment, at the glass-green water surging past, then followed Mikeís gaze up to some older boys on the wooden bridge that paralleled the causeway.

One of them was outside the railing, holding himself up with his arms behind his back. He and the five boys behind him were all peering thirty feet down to the water below.

"Whatís he doing?" the haole boy asked.

"Gonna ride a ray," Mike said.

He had no idea what Mike meant. Then there was hollering above him, and the boy outside the railing let go and dropped into a dive. The other boys cheered when something happened underwater. Then they fell silent, and what seemed like minutes went by. He thought the boy underwater must surely be drowned. What seemed like more minutes passed. Just as panic started to rise in his throat, the older boy burst out of the sea forty feet away, his fist in the air, yelling victory.

"Come on," Mike said, and they went up on the bridge.

* * *

The bridge was made of heavy timbers treated with creosote. Traffic was almost nonexistent and slow moving. Rusted cars and trucks, ragged holes in their sheet metal eaten by the salty ocean air, rumbled across it at a few miles an hour.

He leaned on the low, thick guardrail and watched the manta rays pass underneath. They were big, silent, slow-motion bats easing from the lagoon out into the deep water, riding the current like hawks on an updraft. He was transfixed.

One of the older boys was Connor Delima, the eldest Delima boy. It was his turn outside the railing. He dove out and dropped into the water, grabbed a ray that looked eight feet wide, and disappeared when it banked down at a sharp angle.

"He betta let go," someone said.

Then they waited. And waited.

"He betta let go," someone else said.

They waited some more. The haole boy stopped breathing. Far too much time passed. The haole boy had to start breathing again.

Then Connor bobbed to the surface what looked like a quarter mile away, almost where the water started to churn as it headed into the open ocean. He yelped once and waved, then went into a crawl and made his way over to the slow water behind the remains of the causeway. A few moments later he scrambled up on the concrete and put his fist in the air.

"He shoulda let go," someone said. "He coulda drown out dere."

Joseph, the second eldest Delima, went down to meet his brother. The others waited. The haole boy tapped Mike on the shoulder.

"You ever do that?" he said.

Mike shook his head.

"Not old enough yet. Not allowed till you thirteen."

Mike turned back to watch the Delima boys approaching each other along the shore.

"Older boys wonít let you till you old enough," he said. "Keeps it safe."

Nothing about it seemed safe to the haole boy, and he liked that. He looked down into the water and imagined what it would feel like to ride a big black manta ray, dropping from the bridge into the water, grabbing the strange flat fish, zooming out into the cool green current.

* * *

He was still daydreaming when the two eldest Delima boys came back onto the bridge.

"Any more rays?" Connor said.

A few heads shook.

"Nah," someone said.

The sound of voices brought the haole boy back to the present. Connor sat down on the railing and Joseph sat next to him. A breeze came up and rustled their hair. Little wisps danced on seven dark heads and on one blond one.

"That looks like fun," the haole boy said. "Iíd like to try it."

Seven dark heads turned in his direction. Connor broke into a grin. His square white teeth looked like enameled tiles.

"You would, yah? How old you?"

The haole boy looked around. Only Connor was smiling.

"Ten."

Connor nodded.

"Three more years," he said, and looked away.

Mike whispered, Told you, in his ear. Connor turned back and his grin was gone.

"You ever play get da can?"

The haole boy hesitated, then shook his head. He didnít understand what the older boy meant. Connor stood up.

"Come on," he said.

* * *

The younger boys followed Connor and Joseph off the bridge. The haole boy asked Mike what was going on.

"Ya gonna play get da can."

"Whatís that?"

"Throw a can in da wata, wait till it sink, go get it."

The haole boyís heart skipped a beat. Connor and Joseph led them out onto the causeway.

"Connor," Joseph said.

The older boy stopped and turned.

"You got a can?" Joseph asked.

Connor smiled, then pointed at the water on the up-current side of the causeway, where it slowed and pressed against the pitted concrete. He went about ten paces further and dove in. About forty seconds later he came to the surface and tossed a rusted Coke can to his brother.

The can made a rattling, crunching sound. Joseph tilted it to let the water drain and a coral pebble tumbled out. He decreased the angle to keep the other stones from following.

Connor got back up on the concrete and turned to the haole boy.

"Here da rules. I toss da can in da wata, over here where currentís not so bad. When bubbles stop, you go get it. Easy, yah?"

The haole boy looked at the water.

"How deep is it?"

Connor shrugged.

"Not too deep. Thirty, forty feet."

Joseph stepped over and stood next to the haole boy. He handed the can to Connor.

"Itís about twenty-five feet, maybe a little more," Joseph said. "Connor just wants to scare you."

He spoke in complete sentences and without the pidgin accent. The haole boy looked up at Joseph and studied his face. The non-haole kids spoke that way when they wanted to make him feel better. He almost smiled, then looked back down at the water.

Twenty-five feet, maybe more. Twice as deep as the deepest swimming pool he had ever been in. And full of living things he had never seen the likes of. And with a steady current pushing against the causeway, sucking every loose thing out into the ocean.

"Sure," he said. "Thatís simple."

Connor grinned at him again, flashed his little rows of bright white squares.

"Why do you wait till the bubbles stop?" the haole boy asked.

"So you canít follow íem down," Joseph answered.

"Why donít you fill the can with water so it doesnít leave any bubbles?"

Joseph looked at his brother.

"This one thinks of everything."

Connor grinned again. Joseph explained.

"With water in it, the can goes straight down. Itís too easy to find. Air makes it skip around a little, because it floats some. It doesnít go straight down."

The haole boy nodded.

"Sure," he said. "Makes sense."

He stared into the water.

"You want me to go first?" Joseph asked.

The haole boy glanced up at him, then looked at Connorís blank face. He turned back to Joseph.

"No," he said.

Joseph patted the haole boyís shoulder, then took a few steps away and stood near his older brother. Connor spoke to the haole boy.

"When I say go, okay?"

The haole boy was staring into the water again.

"Okay?" Connor repeated.

The haole boy snapped his head around.

"Sure," he said.

Connor flipped the Coke can into the water. The haole boy moved to the edge of the concrete and stood in a slight crouch. Eight boys waited in silence, eyes on the small stream of bubbles. They fizzled and stopped. A moment passed.

"Go," Connor said.

* * *

The haole boy jumped almost straight up, and dove almost straight down. He went about five feet under without a stroke. Down below him, the can had tilted slightly, and a last few bubbles had slipped out. He saw the little flashes of silver emerge from the opaque layer below and he swam toward them.

The water grew colder and greener and his chest felt heavy. He saw dark forms swimming away from him, nothing too big, probably the outer fringes of a school of mullet. He couldnít help hoping that a ray would come along and he could grab a ride.

Another silver flash, below and a little to his left, and he changed course. Then he could see a glimpse of red, and he swam toward that. He lost it in the murk, but kept going and it emerged again.

He found the Coke can standing upright on a seaweed-covered block of concrete from the bombed-out causeway. The concrete chunk was about the size and shape of a steamer trunk. The seaweed billowed in the current, tendrils about three feet long rising up around the can. His heart throbbed as he swam close and reached in among the waving fronds, clutched the can, and turned to the surface.

He paused when he saw it, high above him, a rippling greenish-silver ceiling. It looked too far away, too far to go. He watched it shimmer and undulate like spilled mercury, and somehow it came closer and grew softer.

He wondered if Mike and Joseph were worried he would drown. Part of him wanted to stay down there, watching the surface shimmer and ripple, and wait to see how long it would take before someone came in after him.

He let a few bubbles slide out of his mouth and watched them wobble and rise. Then he gave a sharp kick and let the big bubble in his chest carry him upward. The rusted can felt perfect in his tight little hand.

Al Sim turned eight on Wake Island, a coral atoll 1,800 miles west of Hawaii. Get the Can won the 2001 Glimmer Train Stories Very Short Fiction Award. His stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Thin Air, Crab Creek Review, and Red Cedar Review. Stories are forthcoming in the Raven Chronicles and the Literary Review.

Copyright © Al Sim, all rights reserved