On a summer afternoon that melted the gravel under our feet, Tony Bacard and I came to the Mighty Whitewater Hydroslide looking for Merrick Saunders. Word had gotten out that Merrick had spent all winter creating something new and “exceedingly perilous.” We had, therefore, come to see for ourselves. “Exceedingly perilous” sounded fun.
It was the summer of 1980, we were seventeen, and everything about us was a giant swirling ball of liminality. The world was in transition. A real crisis in a place called Iran, which most of us would have needed a second to find on a map, introduced us all to a thing called radical fundamentalist Islam, and added to the process of defining where America was in the world for real, something that had begun five years before in Southeast Asia. The ground was still settling under our feet after Vietnam and Watergate. Two years earlier a movie called ‘Star Wars’ had completely changed the direction of popular culture. New music was creeping into the corners of our ears from bands like Black Flag and Husker Du and The Damned, and Hip Hop was escaping like steam under pressure from New York. And there were whispers of this thing called AIDS, just as we were coming into the ripeness of our own sexuality, that would forever change the social landscape. We were shedding our skins. Our childhood pasts dissolved behind us into a sort of diffused cloud of dust. In front of us was a vast dark hallway out of which emanated all sorts of sounds, some seductive and some terrifying, the origins of which we could not see or even completely comprehend.
Had we been born on the coast, we’d have been surfers. Had we been born in the mountains, we’d have been off-the-back-of-the-hill skiers. But since we had been born in the Midwest we had to be recreationally creative. We climbed things: rocks, buildings, railroad trestles, trees, fire towers, radio transmitter antennas. We went caving (the exact term is “spelunking” but only Tony enjoyed saying it because he said it sounded like dropping a golf ball in a toilet,) we practiced recreational trespassing, and generally got in trouble for fun.
Tony and I went into the shed that served as the office for ‘the Mighty.’ It sat on a big wooden deck cantilevered out into the woods over the edge of a ridge. Merrick sold Cokes and ice cream and snacks out of the shed and supplied each slider with a blue closed-foam mat to slide on. The rumble and hum of the pumps that fed water into the slides droned under everything. Lisa Hargrove, the school’s best swimmer and the soloist for every choir performance, was working the counter. Lisa had a perpetually bored affect, probably because she was too smart for the school we went to. Most of my friends were.
“Hey, Lisa,” I said over the heads of four eight-year-olds standing in line for slide tickets and mats, “where’s Merrick?”
“Out back at the new slide.” She said without looking at us.
We went out the back door of the shed and found that the farthest corner of the deck, away from the crush of kids at poolside, where people went to make out as it got dark, had been screened off with 12-foot high sheets of opaque plastic hung on a scaffolding. We heard the sound of a power tool coming from behind the screen.
“Knock, knock Merrick!” shouted Tony at a break in the wall of plastic. “Can we come in?” The power tool shut off and Merrick’s wild-eyed head poked through the gap.
Merrick Saunders ran the Mighty Whitewater waterside. He was a tall lanky guy who always seemed to be wearing blue-green coveralls and what the guys who’d been to Vietnam called a ‘Jungle Hat.’ He had wild eyes and spoke in disjointed bursts of words. He might have been perpetually on drugs, no one knew, but at times he was strangely lucid and almost mystically wise, and he was capable of surprising you.
He’d come back from Vietnam in 73 and immediately purchased several hundred acres of lake front land, sight unseen, that he proclaimed would be his “private sanctuary of sanity in an insane world.” His problems began right away when he went to look at his new property and discovered that the several hundred acres he’d purchased were mostly vertical. He’d essentially purchased the heavily wooded sloping side of a ridge that ended abruptly in Lake St. Vincent. And, given his proclivities and his reputation, he had actually come much closer to creating a “private sanctuary of insanity that made the rest of the world seem more sane.”
Merrick was, however, nothing if not industrious. He set to work creating something out of his up-and-down kingdom. Merrick’s property might have been a righteous ski run based on nothing but sheer steepness. However, seeing as it ended in the lake, and the lake didn’t freeze hard enough and consistently enough, a ski hill was out of the question.
What he eventually came up with used both the inherent verticality of the terrain and the lake: a waterslide; and not just any waterslide, either. We dubbed the Mighty Whitewater waterslide ‘The Death-Defying Water Slide to Oblivion.’
Our high school math nerd friends once tried to calculate the speed you reached in the slide, but opinions varied widely. I was thinking around 35 mph. Tony said flat out 50 and he would not be dissuaded from that number. It was long and the steeps got your attention. Three major bends had you really feeling the G’s, especially the last one. And at the end it actually went up, there by shooting the slider up into the air and out into the lake. Tony and I became regulars when we were fifteen, to the point Merrick knew us personally.
“Oh. Hey! Yeah!” said Merrick in his usual Merrick-style. “Come! Come on back!” and he opened the curtain for us. Merrick stood back and offered up a pantomime “Voila!”
In front of us was a circular basin, like a giant bowl set in the deck. It looked to be about six feet deep at the center, where a hole about twice the size of a manhole cover sat like a drain. This was obviously the drop-in point for Merrick’s new slide. Tony and I stepped lightly into the bowl and looked down the drain hole.
“You’re fucking kidding, Merrick.” Said Tony.
All the water slides we were familiar with had a drop-in that ran off at an angle; usually something not too ridiculous, we’d seen them maybe a little tighter than 45 degrees. This thing went literally straight down. It was also a closed tube. Most slides had a tube at some point, but they were short and usually near the end. This was at least 30 feet before it broke into any kind of an angle, and pitch dark. I climbed out of the bowl and went to the deck rail and looked over. I couldn’t see the entire run, but what I could see was seventy five percent more or less vertical drops with a couple of obscenely tight bends and at least two places that were designed to throw a rider into the air before landing again (hopefully! Christ!) in the chute.
“I hope you got really good insurance.” I said hanging over the edge.
“You are gonna get sued so bad,” grinned Tony.
Merrick looked hurt. “This is going to be the best damn water slide in history, man! That old slide, it’s for your old fat grandpa. Anyone can do it. I got little six-year old kids doing it headfirst now. This is going to be the real deal! This is going to be the REAL Death-Defying Water Slide to Oblivion, or whatever it is you guys call it. Just look at it!”
“I am looking at it Merrick. This is absurd.” I said.
“I’d want ropes and a harness to do this thing, rather than a mat and a swimsuit. Or maybe a parachute.” Said Tony looking down the drain again.
The plastic curtain parted and Lisa came out to the bowl. Briar Buckingham was with her. Briar was a Mermaid. Of course she was. She was perfect for it. She and Lisa were both in the unofficial Mermaid uniform: cut-off jean shorts over a racing suit and aviator sunglasses.
Aside from the adrenaline rush that the slide provided, the other attraction for us were the lifeguards and slide staff Merrick hired. Merrick only hired girls. He said the girls were trustworthy and dependable, which was probably true, and that he couldn’t trust us around the place any farther than he could throw us no matter how much we begged for a job, which was probably also true. Unlike the sporting goods store or the ice cream store, Merrick didn’t only hire pretty girls. At least not Barbie-fake-cheerleader-cookie-cutter pretty. The common denominator in all the girls Merrick hired was that they were all interesting, strong, thoughtful, and curious. Merrick only hired really cool girls.
The girls that worked at the Mighty had formed a quasi-secret sisterhood. Supposedly it was started by Becky Breedlove who was the very first person Merrick hired, and who had now long since gone off to college. ‘Quasi-secret’ in that they didn’t talk about it, and they didn’t all wear matching shirts or anything, but rumor got out and some guys (and probably more girls) knew about it. They called themselves ‘the Mermaids,’ and each Mermaid had something with a mermaid on it, like a necklace or a bracelet or a shirt or something. They supposedly had some secret rights and rituals, which they also never talked about. We did though. It was a fantastic topic of speculation amongst the guys I hung out with. Briar was a Mermaid.
On the grand multi-stage theater of teenage high school drama there are always leading actors, upon whom the brightest lights and the most attention shine. And there are many, many bit players who get their moments in the spotlight and then fade away. Tony and I and the rest of our group were probably someplace between the Shakespearian Fool and the Greek Chorus: always on the periphery and always ready with a comment. Briar Buckingham had managed to avoid the stage altogether. She and her sister Holly worked with dogs, maybe at the Humane Society. I heard she did ballet. But she was never at any parties. She never dated anyone we knew. She wasn’t even friends with anyone we knew so far as we could tell. Most of the school, I’m sure, never gave her much of a thought.
I had been fascinated by her since she showed up at school as a Junior. She was smart. She had a wicked sharp sense of humor if you paid any attention to her. She was comfortable in her own body. And she was very attractive without actively trying to be. Basically she didn’t care, which made her even more interesting.
“So,” said Lisa, “what do you guys think of the new slide?”
“Treacherous,” said Tony.
“More than,” said Lisa, “I’m not gonna do it.”
Briar just smiled at me.
“I’m not sure Billo would do this slide,” said Tony, looking over the railing edge again.
Older brothers of some of my friends claimed to have met Billo. His exploits were the stuff of legend. He’d worked on Cave Rescue and had gotten more than a few unfortunates out of some very tight and dark places. Billo had spent three years on the ski patrol in Steamboat. Billo had been in the first Iron Man triathlon, and had nearly won it. Billo had vagabonded around the world. Billo had not only done the only double back flip off the ‘rope swing of certain hospitalization,’ he had actually CREATED ‘the rope swing of certain hospitalization.’ And believe me, if you ever see ‘the rope swing of certain hospitalization’ you’ll understand the magnitude of that accomplishment. Billo had gone all the way down the Ferguson mine, and had spray-painted his name at the end of it. No one could confirm that because no one alive was brave enough to go more than a hundred yards down that shaft, even with ropes. If you got a pair of good binoculars and looked at the very top of the WZXP transmitter antenna you could see a weather beaten blue, green, and orange silk bandana tied at the very top. Billo did that. I got sick just looking at that tower. Billo had done a perfect swan dive off Mile High, a rock tower one hundred and forty feet above the surface of the water at the bottom of an old stone quarry near town. Just standing on the edge of Mile High was a dare few people would take. Basically, anything cool, dangerous or amazing had been done first or best by Billo. True stories or not, no matter how cool you got, you weren’t as cool as Billo.
“I dunno. Billo might do it.” I said.
“But he’d be the only one.” Said Tony.
Briar walked over to where I was standing and asked quietly, “Hey, are you sticking around here for a while?”
Her asking me that kind of question out of the blue, dressed in her Mermaid suit, rendered me temporarily aphasic.
“Uh, no,” I said when I found the ability to speak again, “I gotta work. In fact, I gotta go now or I’m going to be late.”
“Where?” asked Briar.
“Okay,” she said cryptically and she and Lisa went back to work.
Caldwell’s IGA sat on the edge of town where Main Street turned back into State Road 415. A cornfield ocean broke behind it, and I stood looking out over all of it as the sun set. If fecundity has a smell it’s probably the scent of a cornfield on a hazy purple July sunset. The heat that had been storing up in the field all day rose up with the humidity and it carried with it the sweet musky erotic scent of the cornfield into the hazy purple and azure air and the sun filtered through it as it sank like a incandescent red hole, rendering everything into a dream where anything could happen. As the first of the fireflies crept out like fairies from under the dark green blades I turned and went inside.
At about eleven, I was sitting by myself up front at one of the checkout lines reading some story in one of the tabloids about a baby being born with a tattoo from the Titanic on its chest. Perhaps it was too much Weekly World News, or something, I don’t know, but for some reason I looked up from the paper and saw a werewolf at the window.
There at the plate glass window, with the washable marker ad for a sale on brisket written across it, stood a werewolf. “Stood” was why I knew it was a werewolf and not just a regular wolf, which itself would have been just wrong. This thing stood on its back legs with its front legs pasted to the window glass, it was as tall as me and its long red tongue hung out of its mouth full of huge white teeth.
I was looking at the werewolf, trying to think where I could find a camera so I could send the picture to the WWN, when the soft swish of the automatic door announced someone entering the store. It was Briar Buckingham. That was nearly as strange as the werewolf, because I’d never seen Briar in Caldwell’s before.
Briar smiled at me and walked over to where I was standing. I pointed at the werewolf. Briar looked at the werewolf and put her hands on her hips.
“Shit,” she said and walked back out the door.
The werewolf got down off the glass and became just a regular dog. Actually not a regular dog, a giganticly huge dog, but just a dog. Briar was outside with it and seemed to be scolding it. The dog lied down outside the window and Briar came back inside.
“Sorry,” she said. “That’s Dancer. He’s kinda like that.”
“That’s your dog?”
“No, he belongs to Holly, my sister. She’s home for a few weeks and brought a couple of her dogs along. They came along with me for the ride.” She smiled at me again and there was something behind the smile. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but it was there.
“Came for some Triskets,” she said, pointing back down the aisle, and she disappeared into the store. She returned a few moments later with a box of Triskets, and I rang her out. Briar looked at me with that look full of something again.
“Hey, can you come outside? I want to ask you something,” she said. I called for Tommy to come up front and Briar and I went out into the parking lot.
Stepping out of the blazing glass box of the IGA into the dark outside was like leaving sea lab and slipping out onto the undersea floor. The heavy midnight heat and humidity swallowed us whole. Every breath we took drew the entire fulsome dark atmosphere into our bodies like breathing underwater.
The background hum of the compressors and air conditioning in the IGA was instantly replaced by the roar of hundreds of thousands of insects and night creatures involved in their lustful night businesses. Other than the silent scream of the lights in Caldwell’s it was as dark as space, even blacker in the negative light of the ominous cornfield. The roads were vacant and beyond the trespassing light pollution of the store was nothing.
Briar was greeted by the enormous former werewolf, an intensely beautiful silver grey and white malamute, the biggest one by far I’d ever seen, who pushed at her box of Triskets with his muzzle.
“Just wait…” Briar said to the dog, holding the box of crackers over her head. “He’s a good dog,” she said to me, “just kinda goofy.”
Briar and I walked out to her car, a savagely beaten maroon Oldsmobile station wagon. I’d seen it in the parking lot at school and had always wondered who’s it was. It looked like someone had driven it to Patagonia and back. She’d left the keys in it, and you could see how she could get away with that, because another rhinoceros-sized malamute sat calmly in the front seat.
“That’s Dasher. He’s a bit better behaved.” Briar said, she then opened the door to her car, glided into the dark of her front seat next to the dog, turned her keys to start her radio, turned it up a notch and slipped back out again, inviting Dasher out with her. The local rock station started playing “More Than A Feeling” by Boston. Four years old and still getting played to death.
Briar pushed her long brown hair back behind her ear and popped open her box of Triskets. Instantly the two woolly mammoths sat in rapt attention.
“Who wants a Trisket?” Briar asked in baby talk. They sat and stared at the cracker in her hand and licked their wolfish chops.
She started tossing crackers to the dogs, who snatched them out of the air. “I wish Holly hadn’t brought these guys down with her, even though I love ‘em to death…” She grabbed one of the two, Dancer I think, by his big muzzle and kissed him on the nose.
“They’re winter dogs. Hate this heat.” She did her hair tuck thing again and looked up at me. The radio started into the opening riff of “Don’t Fear The Reaper,”
“Hey,” she finally said, “I know this might sound weird, but I’m going to say it anyway.” She bent down into her car again and pulled out a cassette tape. “I hear you know some good music that’s not on the radio?”
“Can you make me a tape?” she handed me the cassette, “If I have to go all summer with nothing but WZXP I’m going to start taking hostages.” Her eyes flashed at me with a smile in the darkness and she gave a little grunt of frustration to the sky.
“Absolutely,” I said, “what do you like?”
“I’m open. You put it down and I’ll listen to it… I’ll let you know what I like out of what you give me, and maybe you can do another one off that? You could think of it as community service; saving innocent citizens from a mad woman intent on taking revenge for Midwest rock radio.”
“I’ve never seen you in here before,” I said, changing the subject.
“Yeah… I needed the Triskets.” She said, waving the box at me. “So, come out tomorrow for the opening of the new slide?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” I said.
I watched her disappear down the road into the darkness and I floated back into the IGA.
I grabbed a ride and got dropped off in the parking lot at ‘The Mighty’ in my baggies and walked past the ‘closed’ signs, following the sounds of the pumps back to where Merrick’s new slide was situated. The plastic sheeting had come down. Water was running. Merrick was standing next to the bowl watching the water swirl. A stack of new slide mats was next to him on the deck.
“I been working on the pressure all morning. I think it’s good now, man!” said Merrick over the roar of the slide pool. If anything, the slide looked worse with water in it.
Lisa and Tony appeared from the shed. Tony had gotten there earlier, probably to see Lisa, even though he wouldn’t admit it. Briar wandered over behind them.
“Man… I really don’t know about this…” said Tony, shaking his head.
Merrick drew himself up like an important stork: “This slide would do Billo proud. The first person to ride it is going to be a legend. I will put their picture in the shed and make a plaque for them right here.” He pointed at the wall next to the entry pool.
We stood there looking at each other. Desire to go first, and there by live on as some sort of local legend, was mitigated by what I at least thought was perfectly rational and intelligent fear. The entry pool swirled and gurgled like Charybdis at our feet. Now that water was in it, even the initial chute had the real air of unsurvivablity.
“Merrick,” said Tony, “I’m not sure this thing is seriously do-able.”
“Look at it,” said Lisa, pointing over the edge. “I count five places where you could really die. This doesn’t look at all fun.”
“Yeah…” said Briar, “Wait, I want to see something. Here, hold these for me for a second,” she handed me her aviators and walked over to the entry pool.
Tony turned to try and talk some sense into Merrick about shutting this death trap down and starting over again. I was still looking at the whirlpool. Briar gave everyone a sweet smile, grabbed a mat and shot feet first into the pool and down the drain.
“HOLY SHIT!” shouted Tony.
“OH MY GOD!” shouted Lisa.
“BRIAR BUCKINGHAM!” shouted Merrick.
I grabbed a mat and shot in after her.
I have hit black ice at night on a crowded mountain highway outside Denver at sixty and lost control of my Jeep for a few seconds. I’ve been in a flash thunderstorm at the top of a mountain ridge with a full rack of aluminum slung over my shoulder. I have gotten caught in a powerful riptide in heavy surf without knowing there was a ‘high danger-no swimming’ warning for the ocean that day. But I can think of few things I’ve done more utterly terrifying than following Briar Buckingham down that waterslide.
The initial drop was dark and loud and full of water. It was incredibly disorienting, and I was fairly sure I was going to drown. Then I hit light and the ride really started. The slide was so steep that I felt like I only had real contact with the chute about half the time, the rest of it was like a wet freefall. At least three times I thought I was going to get shot off the ride and out into the trees at a hundred miles an hour, to die wrapped around some oak in my baggies, but amazingly enough, I stayed on it. Two turns felt like they separated my body from my internal organs with the G’s. The ride ended startlingly abruptly after what seemed like an hour, and I found myself shot out into space. I was probably fifteen feet above the waters of Lake St. Vincent, but it felt like it was a hundred. I’m sure my entry into the lake was less than graceful.
I came back to the surface of the lake sputtering and probably in shock. Briar was happily treading water a few feet away, her wet brown hair smooth over her head and a huge grin on her face.
“I was hoping you’d be next,” she said and she swam over and kissed me rather ferociously on the mouth. “So, what’d you think of the slide?” she said when she let me go.
I’m pretty sure my reply was incoherent.
“Yeah,” she said, “it was pretty damn fun. But I’m not sure I want to do it again. Merrick is gonna have to change it.
I was still stunned, maybe more by the kiss than the ride, but either way… “How do we get out?” I finally managed to say.
“And that’s another thing,” said Briar, looking around, “I don’t think Merrick thought that part out. We’re on the other side of the point from where the other slides let out, so we’re going to have to swim out into the lake and around the point and back in. Bad planning. Ready for some exercise?” and off she went with an easy and powerful stroke out into the lake. I followed.
I was completely gassed by the time we had made that swim and climbed the 242 steps up from the lake. Lisa and Tony had assumed we’d died. They were more relieved than anything when we reappeared. Briar and I both walked over to Merrick, who was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
“No,” we said in unison.
Merrick was briefly crestfallen, but soon he was trying to figure out how he could improve the ride. Briar and I sat with him and went over the problem areas, which was most of it. Tony and Lisa decided not to give the slide a try after hearing our accounts, and acted almost deferential to us. Especially after Merrick made a solemn promise to make a plaque for Briar.
I was still talking to Merrick when I realized that I was stranded. Tony and Lisa had gone back to town together and I’d been planning on riding with them.
“No worries,” said Briar, “I’ll run you back.”
I climbed into Briar’s beat up station wagon and she smiled at me from the driver’s seat.
“Here,” she twisted the mermaid charm off her key ring and handed it to me. “You are officially collected… unless you want to give it back?”
“Collected?” I said, holding the mermaid.
“Yeah. You are now property of a Mermaid. Me. Each Mermaid collects a guy or girl to be their date for the Mermaid bonfire. It’s one of our rituals. You’ll see. Unless you don’t want to go with me?”
“Oh, no. Please. I’m more than fine with being your date.”
“Good.” And she started the car and pulled out of the parking lot.
I noticed something tied to her rearview. A weather beaten blue, green, and orange silk bandana. I pointed at it.
Briar just smiled again. “I thought it was pretty, so I went up and got it.”
Jim Naremore is a new author coming out of the American Midwest. His first novel, “The Arts of Legerdemain as Taught by Ghosts” was recently release on Belle Lutte Press and was just awarded an Independent Publishers Book Prize for best first novel. His short fiction has appeared in The Offbeat, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Emrys Journal among several others. Jim writes to placate these strange people he finds wandering around in his head.
© 2017, Jim Naremore