You haven’t lived until you’ve swallowed a clam on the end of a string and had somebody pull it out of your stomach. And they just don’t pull that sucker up slowly; it’s more like they’re starting a lawn mower. But that’s not the worst of it. Worse is having cigarettes snuffed out on your arms, or being buried up to your neck in the sand and feeling the high tide begin to lap your face. Still worse are the paddles: sawed down, shellacked lifeguard oars. You take forty of them in your six weeks prior to Bloodnight–forty blows to the backs of your thighs. On your Bloodnight you may take twenty more. But the ultimate worst pain, the very summit of abuse, is the Heet. That same liquid people use to relieve tired aching muscles, that camphor alcohol methyl salicylate solution, that smells like wintergreen–something pleasant–the brothers swab over your balls, then stick the applicator up your ass. Occasionally they coat your eyelids with it. It’s a pain that has no frame of reference. It’s like somebody started a forest fire in your pants or burned your dick with a branding iron. And there’s nothing you can do about it–no relief, just time. You can dip your member under frigid water, put ice, Vaseline, butter on it, but it still blazes like a phosphorous flame. Then after maybe twenty-four hours the pain begins to subside. You quit your moaning and groaning, twisting on the bed trying to find a comfortable position, asking the Lord why why WHY would you allow such a thing to happen. To get into Bones? the toughest high school fraternity. Are you nuts? Crazy? A masochist? Demented? Two days later all the skin begins to blister off your penis. It looks like (forgive the comparison) a snake molting. It looks like your damn dick’s unraveling, and your flesh is mottled a deep red. Then the brothers tell you that Heet can make you sterile. You think about it a moment, but what can you do?
On your Bloodnight maybe you take thirty paddles. Maybe the brothers don’t like you. Maybe you’re not the right type. Maybe you’re a small skinny four-eyed fucker–not one of the jocks on the football team, or one of the white trash maniacs from the nether districts of the city. Or maybe you’re the wrong ethnic group: Jewish, Hispanic, Oriental, mixed. Or Black. Bones doesn’t take any Blacks. Whatever you are, you’re going to get hurt.
Down the beach the brothers punch the hell out of you for a while, trying to tattoo their initial rings into your chest. Then the pledgemaster says it’s time for the paddles. But first, you have to get into position. You move your cock and balls in front of you and squeeze your legs together tight, then you bend over and grab somebody around the waist. Then somebody gives you a piece of rubber to bite down on, and places an oar at the base of your spine. You don’t want to get hit high without protection because it can paralyze you; they’ll be wheeling you in and out of various rehab wards. You don’t want to get hit low because a low blow will cripple you; you’ll be walking on crutches for the rest of your life. Sometimes the brothers bore a quarter-size hole near the end of the blade which raises a welt on impact. Then they smash the welt.
You stand there in the sand and take account of your surroundings. You smell the salt air, gaze up at the stars, hear tiny wavelets brush the beach. Maybe you notice the whine of a small plane as it’s climbing climbing into the heavens.
The first paddle cracks like you’ve been hit with a whip. You scream, and suddenly the world starts spinning. “Don’t scream,” they say. “Buck up. Be a man. And you better not cry, if you cry we’ll kill ya.” By the tenth paddle big tears are oozing down your face, but you don’t say a word–a blessed numbness has set in. By the twentieth paddle you’re begging them to stop. “You wanna quit?” they ask. Of course you do but you don’t say it. By the thirtieth paddle you’re in a whole other state. You can’t believe that a person can take so much pain. Then the pledgemaster hollers “Stop!” and “Run, jump into that ocean.” You try, but you fall. Then they kick you and laugh.
Afterwards, of course, you get the Heet.
At home your mother answers the door. Your father’s not there; he’s been dead three years. She takes one look at you and starts to scream: “Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god!” Her face contorts like she’s trying to suck air through a pinched straw. Ordinarily she’s pretty, with butter-yellow hair and eyes like the sky after a hard rain. You push past her, stumbling on cartoon feet. In the bathroom you try to get undressed but you can’t get your pants off–your legs are too swollen. Then your mother opens the door. You stare at her…ominously. She sees you struggling, leaves, comes back with a pair of scissors in her hand. Slowly she cuts through the thick wet material. You find yourself half-naked in front of your mother. Your cock looks like a tiny red bath plug. Then she starts shouting and pointing hysterically: “Look, look, look at your legs!” In the mirror on the linen closet you notice two dark streaks–like somebody’s taken a roller to them. The backs of your thighs are completely black, except for some patches of dried blood and sand. You start feeling sick with the knowledge that this time you really messed up–worse than when you pushed that boy down the stairs or scalded yourself when you were three. Your mother starts crying, sobbing, “I’ve failed you, I’ve failed you….I wish your father were here, I wish your father were here.” “Well he’s not,” you say. “Now get the hell out.”
In your room you stare at the athletes on the wall: pictures of weightlifters, boxers, divers. You think of your father, how he used to play golf, a sissy sport, but you miss him anyway.
The Heet’s still chewing away at your crotch. You’re shivering in the bed like you’ve got malaria. And you’ll never get that wintergreen smell out of your nose. Tomorrow, no matter what, you have to make it to school because if the brothers don’t see you they’ll blackball your ass.
Tomorrow you will make it to school.
Three days later you’ll get Initiated where the brothers will paddle you again on those legs.
A week later you’ll get sworn into Bones.
Two months later you’ll get into a fight with a boy, then quit after he punches you twice in the face.
Six months later you’ll be involved in a riot where a boy will lose an eye, and you’ll get expelled.
Five weeks later you’ll go to jail for a night for driving underage and wrecking a car.
A short time after you’ll give up on Bones for subtler and subtler ways to punish yourself.
About the author:
James Rahn taught fiction at the University of Pennsylvania for fifteen years and has an MFA from Columbia University. His stories and articles have appeared in several magazines. In 1988 he started the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group in Philadelphia. He is the author of Bloodnight, a collection of linked stories.