The sand dollars and crystals dangling from a small piece of driftwood in the front door rattle against the glass as Jake enters the Goodwill, sending a prism through the gray-haired woman behind the checkout, across the aisle and onto the dressing room doors. Jake passes the Boutique, with its coral jewelry, crab- and ship-shaped ashtrays, and a pair of Crocs with the Florida Gators logo on them. He ignores the Little Mermaid towel set, seahorse clock, and whale that squirts from its blowhole in the eastern side of the store. Under the Seasonals sign, swimsuits and winter coats hang on opposite sides of the aisle like rival gangs. Jake turns up a metal ramp that drum rolls each time a cart crosses it, cuts through culottes and capris, to the back corner where a sign flapping beneath an a/c vent reads Men. Jake needs black pants for a cater-waiter job at the place where his friend Bonnie works.
With a few pairs to try on, he curls around the far end of the rack to peruse the shorts, flicking through with such speed, it’s a blur of colors. He stops at a pair of orange-striped aqua shorts with the Miami Dolphins logo on one leg. They’re boy’s size 12.
The summer Jake was twelve, he missed the van to church camp. Brother Crockett, the youth pastor and camp counselor, gave him a ride. Forty minutes into the two-hour drive, Bro. Crockett turned up a gravel road, pulled over by an old tree with a barbed-wire fence growing through it and got out to pee. Each time Jake glanced out his window, Bro. Crockett’s penis was larger. Soon, they were in the back seat together, naked, at the beginning of a secret relationship that would last five years.
Jake hangs the shorts on his fingers with the pants and heads to a dressing room at the front of the store, dressing rooms no bigger than closets, four plywood walls, one with hinges. He hangs the pants and shorts on one of two hooks to the right, and as he closes the door a prism reflects off the mirror onto the back of the dressing room like a gay pride searchlight.
He drops his pants to his ankles, stands on top of his Tevas and pinches the hanger clamps, releasing the shorts. The threads in the seams pop soundlessly as he forces the shorts over his hips and tucks his growing member against a thigh. Leaning onto the wall, he gawks at his reflection. Am I the twelve-year-old boy or the thirty-something youth pastor nudging that boy past the point of no return? Dark excitement floods Jake, the shorts, seeps through the fabric and lands in glops on the tiles.
Then comes shame, new and familiar, sweet and bitter, innocent and criminal. He peels off the shorts, cleans himself, then stumbles pulling up his pants, bumps against the door, knocking it open. When he reaches out, the front-door ornament shoots a prism into the mirror, and Jake sees in it a preteen boy with brassy red hair standing naked by the cash registers. His shame is recharged. He quickly latches the door and sits on the built-in bench, struggling to catch his breath.
An abrupt knock startles him. “Occupied.” He slips into his sandals, grabs the pants by their hangers, opens the door and comes face to face with a red-haired middle-aged woman in a cloud of flowery perfume. Jake holds the door.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Wait!” He blocks her. “Forgot something.”
The woman steps back; Jake steps in. The shameful smell of his sin accosts him. He looks into the dressing room but there’s nothing but an empty hanger on a hook. Jake stares, frozen. The woman clears her throat. And there he is again, the red-headed kid in the mirror, only now he’s wearing orange-striped aqua shorts. Jake spins around, but the boy has disappeared.
The woman says, “Can I do something?”
Jake pushes past her silently, hangs the pants on the nearest rack, and hurries out of the Goodwill as rainbows dance on the dressing room doors.
The morning after Bonnie’s husband Louis leaves town to work on an indie film, Jake heads into the house from his travel trailer in the driveway to make coffee. The boys are in the living room watching Calliou and playing with LEGOs. “Hi, Uncle Jake!” they whisper.
He puts the kettle on and joins them. “Is she asleep?”
“Maman’s got rainbows,” Orléans says without looking away from his cartoon.
Jake sits, not sure of the question he needs to ask.
“She has a bad headache,” Antoine tells him with a seriousness belying his eight years.
A crusty rattle rings from the bedroom; it’s Bonnie calling feebly.
The bedroom door is cracked and it’s pitch black inside. Jake pushes the door, “Bon?”
“Come in,” he thinks she says.
There’s a shapeless lump on the bed. The room smells like pickles. Jake closes the door. “What’s that smell?”
“Vinegar rag; I’ve got a migraine.”
“Does it help?”
“No.” She almost laughs.
“Can I do something?”
“Take the boys. Lunch. McDonald’s is fine. No Cokes.”
“Okay.” He reaches the bed and pats whatever he touches, “Maybe we’ll go to the beach.”
“No,” she says louder. “No beach.”
“Lou’s sister drowned. When they were kids.”
“God,” Jake says, his mind floating away from her for a moment. “The park okay?”
The water kettle warbles; Bonnie moans. Jake kicks the door on the way out. “Sorry,” he says, then whispers, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”
“Fuck you,” she murmurs back playfully, the energy draining out of the words as they leave her mouth.
Antoine is in the kitchen turning off the burner. Jake pats him on the head. “Y’all wanna get some breakfast?”
“How about donuts?”
Antoine looks up with saucer eyes, “Really?”
“Of course. Get your brother and get dressed.” He watches as Antoine dashes into the living room and squats next to Orléans. While they converse in French, Jake considers how much they look like their parents, Antoine a smaller version of Louis, with those beautiful curly black locks, Orléans a mini-Bonnie, with that same cute Reese Witherspoon jawline. They zoom past the kitchen into their bedrooms.
The day is donuts, a drive on the A1A through the Guana River Marsh watching alligators, and McDonald’s. Then, in a turnaround, Orléans points out the window, “What’s that?” There’s a cluster of bright colored animals inside a coral fence a hundred feet down the road. The sign reads Beachside Playscape.
Jake says, “Let’s find out!”
A sand dollar sidewalk leads from the parking lot to an oversized whale and mermaid side-by-side; the restrooms. Beyond them, a woman on a ship-shaped park bench bothers a stroller with her foot; a young girl swings on a seahorse swing set. The boys charge across the playground, changing directions so quickly, Jake almost loses them. They engage with everything, the octopus merry-go-round, monkey monkey bars, dolphin slide. The girl watches the boys silently, head turning free of her body. After a while, she timidly starts following them, and before long, the three of them are running around laughing.
Jake notices all of this after he sits on the jellyfish adjacent to the woman and she starts asking questions — How old are they? What are their names? Where’s their mother? What do you do for work? He considers lying, building something increasingly unbelievable, but she isn’t worth the effort. He answers her as briefly as possible, but she continues undaunted.
When Orléans slips and scrapes his hand, Jake sees his escape.
The woman reaches into her bag, “Caboose wipe?” she offers.
“No, thanks. The whale will make everything better.”
“Of course,” she says, winking.
The gigantic whale is the boy’s restroom. It’s nothing special on the inside: a row of sinks with a mirror over them, half of it reflecting the playground and the ocean beyond. On the side wall are three full-length urinals and a wheelchair stall, the sources of the urine and flowery perfume smell burning their sinuses. The boys drop their pants to their ankles and stand at the two outside urinals, ruddy bums exposed. Jake steps up between them.
“What happened to your penis?” Orléans asks.
“Uncle Jake is circle-sized,” Antoine says.
“Circle-sized,” Orléans repeats, laughing.
“Stop it!” Jake moves to the stall. The boys giggle then fall silent.
The room suddenly brightens. Sunlight beams through a round window in the ceiling. Jake looks up. Blowhole, he thinks.
The urinals flush. “Wash your hands,” he calls over the stall.
When he steps out, Orléans is at the sink, hands in a cloud of lather, a prism bouncing off the mirror across his face.
Orléans motions at the mirror without looking away from his hands.
“Stay here.” Jake runs outside. The woman is pushing her stroller toward the exit, the girl following. “Which way?”
The woman gives Jake a confused look, “Excuse me?”
“The boy. Antoine.” He motions a height with his hand, “He ran out of the bathroom just now.”
“I didn’t see anyone,” the woman says.
Jake circles the whale and mermaid restrooms calling Antoine, then reenters the whale, saying as he enters, “Come on, Orlly.” But now Orléans isn’t there. He screams, “Antoine! Orléans!”
Outside, the woman is still standing in the same place. “Is everything alright?” she asks.
“No! They’re both gone!”
The woman looks down at the girl, “Did you see them, Crystal?”
The girl shakes her head and moves closer to her mother, shy again.
In the restroom, the prism has grown brighter and divides the room into light and dark. Jake catches himself in the mirror and sees his panic, then spots the boys in the reflection, running toward the ocean. He dashes out again but the boys have disappeared.
Crystal is squealing and pointing at the ocean; it sounds like terror.
Jake stops, “What is it?”
“Dolphins!” she screams, laughing.
Jake takes off across the playground, jumps the coral fence and crosses the sand-dusted road to the wide, empty beach. Offshore, a pod of dolphins stitch across the horizon, beneath the pink and blue sky, above the dark green water, a prism in their spray framing them perfectly. Jake runs alongside them, calling out for the boys over and over again.