I watched Big Phipps climb the high dive like he had nothing to lose. He looked dead-eyed, unbothered. The board drooped like a bottom lip.
“BEANS,” one of his teammates yelled from below. The kid next to him in the ballcap cackled. It was an un-sanctioned nickname writ large, for which I was indirectly responsible. I wish I’d told them to can it, but reputation is a brittle thing.
Phipps’ calf muscles tensed, the board groaned. But then he had second thoughts, made an about-face, shuffled toward the center of the board to collect himself.
Slab of a kid.
A kid who, back in eighth grade, was recruited for varsity O-line despite the fact that he played more Warcraft than football. Special arrangements were made.
We sat next to each other in homeroom because our last names were neighbors. Made small talk, shared a love of Chris Farley. Once he told me in confidence that he liked to hit the Taco Bell drive-thru, circle around and finish his burrito in time to order again at the intercom. He wasn’t proud about it, but it was a game he knew he could win. I wish he’d never told me.
Phipps turned again on the board, made his way back to the edge. By now I couldn’t see his eyes, but I’d have bet anything they were closed. Envisioning his teammates, who treated him more like a mascot than a comrade. Envisioning the faces of anyone who called him Beans. Who said, C’mon, just pick me up. Who said, Phippsy’ll finish what we don’t.
In Bio we’d been paired up to dissect a pig fetus. Phipps was surprisingly deft with the knife, made a clean cut from throat to anus like we’d been shown. He pointed out the spleen, let me take out the lungs.
“Kinda smells like a girl,” he said of the formaldehyde.
I smirked like I understood, even though I wouldn’t get laid until I was almost out of college. I had no reason not to believe him. We were a class of four-hundred. Besides, he was kind. And he never asked how many people I’d told about his fast food solitaire.
After that, we shot finger guns at one another in the hallway. A few times he invited me over to finish lab work, play some Warcraft, but I always made excuses, stopped short of friendship. Convinced myself it was because we were a few months from graduation. My friends in Debate poked fun. What’s up with you and Beans? Out of guilt I told them he hated that name, a burden they couldn’t surmount.
It was five bucks to watch the contest. Most of the cash would go to Habitat, to the family whose house we seniors were going to build. Best belly flop of the day took home the rest, a hundred bucks to the restaurant of your choice.
Phipps had the burritos won before he even showed up. Everyone knew it; sucker’s bets were made. All he had to do was jump, spread his limbs, let gravity do the rest. Give the people what they paid for. Emerge from the water pink and stinging, the victor. His closest competition was Ben Goff, who made up for a lower BMI with a high-voltage blend of commitment and lack of fear; his splash didn’t even reach the lip of the pool.
There he is, Phippsy, I can still see him, the deft bounce that belied his bulk, the fold of his thighs, launching himself off the board, a refrigerator of flesh in a perfect parabola. And I wish I could say he pierced the water without a splash, a flawless incision that would have been a middle finger to us all. But I couldn’t bring myself to look. No. I closed my eyes to the shattering water, to the collective groan, and understood he had played his role, given us a show.
Afterwards, I caught him in the parking lot, folding himself into his VW Rabbit, securing the gift card in the glove compartment. His hair was still spiky and wet. I leaned in through the passenger window, could feel my friends rolling their eyes behind me.
“Did it hurt, Phippsy?” I said. I suppose I wanted him to hit me with a finger gun, to tell me he’d hardly felt a thing.
What he said instead, as he shrugged, as his big mitt shifted the stick into first, was, “You tell me.”
Brendan Gillen is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. His work appears, or will appear, in HAD, X-R-A-Y, Expat, Longleaf Review, South Carolina Review, Cosmonauts Avenue and elsewhere. You can find him at bgillen.com or on Twitter @beegillen.