Swamp Rats & Handcuffs, by Mike Koenig

I don’t remember what started the great handcuff debate of ‘91. I know Joey Myers said he could get a pair, and Ted Matthews said he couldn’t. The two went back and forth about it for a few days, Joey insisting there was a real pair in his house and Ted saying it was impossible. How the two got to the subject of handcuffs or why they cared so much about owning a pair I’ll never know. Looking back, it isn’t surprising that Mrs. Myers had a pair for her personal use. She was the only mother of Lakeside Swim and Tennis Club that could pull off a two-piece bathing suit. And boy did she pull it off, untying the strings of her bikini when the lifeguards were looking. You never saw anything. She was classy enough to tan face-down on a lawn chair. But damn if she didn’t know how to make the high school boys notice her and how to wink at them so they wouldn’t stop noticing. Yes, she certainly seems like the type that would enjoy bedroom games. Not that we realized that at the time. We were only eleven and couldn’t decide if anyone besides a police officer or maybe security guard would be allowed to own such a thing. Surely, handcuffs were regulated by the government.

My older brother Hank was a lifeguard at the pool that summer. He affectionately called me and my friends the swamp rats, because we spent every day at the pool—rain or shine. In fact we liked rainy days even better because the kids, the ones who were too big for the kiddie pool and too small to stand in the deep end, didn’t come at all. We couldn’t swim on the rainy days, but swimming was only a small part of going to Lakeside. Mostly one went just to be social, because it was better than sitting around the house.

I must admit I felt like we owned Lakeside. We sat by ourselves on the pavilion at the far end of the pool. The little kids knew not to come to our table and the adults stayed to the sides of the pool where there were lawn chairs and umbrellas. The pavilion was for the young, the cool. And that’s exactly how we saw ourselves when we’d play cards and talk about serious issues: what super hero would win in a fight, when would the girls’ mosquito bumps turn into real breasts, and yes, were ordinary Americans allowed to own handcuffs. From our spot in the back you could see everything, the mushroom fountain in the center of the kiddie pool, the diving boards that sat on the L of the main pool, the snack bar in the front right, and the locker room door that sat to the left. If you turned around you could even see the tennis courts that sat below the hill of the pavilion and the field between them that could be used to play baseball or rundown, or just a game of catch. Yes, Lakeside was my kingdom during the summer months, the only place I wanted to be.

Of course, Hank didn’t see me as a king. He wouldn’t even talk to me inside the pool. He said it was unprofessional. But I think he just hated me and my friends as much as we hated the first graders. I agreed to his no talking rules. It was cooler to come and go with your brother than with your parents so I didn’t want to risk seeing his wrath. As we entered the main building he went to the guard’s office without so much as a nod goodbye and I continued to the pool area.

Ted and Joey were already on the pavilion. Joey’s hand had that metallic shine that sometimes accompanies a nice watch. So I ran past the pool, ignoring one of the guard’s whistle for me to walk.

Joey was dangling the linked bracelets in front of Ted as if he was a hypnotist. Neither was speaking; in fact, there was a small group gathering, and no one spoke. Everyone was just watching Joey as if the metal handcuffs he held in front of him were a religious artifact worthy of silent reverence.

“It’s probably just from a magic set,” Ted finally said. “There’s no way they’re real.”

“They’re real.”

“Okay, sure,” Ted said, turning to the group. “Sure they’re real.”

“Well, put them on then.”

“What?”

“Put ‘em on. If you can get them off without the key, I’ll give you ten bucks.”

Ted looked at the other boys. None of them offered any help.

“You won’t cause you know they’re real.”

I could see in Ted’s eyes that he was beginning to think the handcuffs were real. The only question left was whether or not he was going to admit this. He scratched his head. His hair was brown in the spring but had become lighter with a summer’s worth of sun. “Just cause I don’t know how your magic handcuffs work doesn’t make them real.”

“Just put them on already. You’ll be able to tell.”

Though I was thinking the same thing, I’m glad I wasn’t the one who said it. I hated that Ted thought he knew everything about everything but I’m glad I’m not the one that forced his pride into stretching out his arms so Joey could cuff him. I was just a bystander, which is always the best person to be.

Anyway Ted put his hands out and got cuffed. They were loose on his wrists but did the job of keeping his hands together. Then Ted went through the motions of trying to get them off. He knocked the rings together and pulled them apart. He did just about everything he could think of that might unlock a fake pair. Nothing worked, so he sat down at the picnic table with a stubborn look on his face.

“You give up,” Joey asked, tossing the key lightly in his left hand.

“I’m just thinking.”

“Well, while you think, I’m gonna go for a swim. It’s mighty hot today, must be even hotter if you’re wearing metal.”

Ted shot a look at Joey that was something I’d only seen from teachers. That look you get when you cross an unspoken line in the classroom and know you have to spend the rest of the day in complete silence. The look was so dramatic that a couple of the younger onlookers ran off. And everyone else backed away from the table so it was just Joey and Ted— eleven-year-old man to eleven-year-old man.

“I guess you were right,” Ted said in a mumble. “These seem pretty real.”

For most people getting Ted to admit he was wrong about anything would have been a huge triumph, but Joey wasn’t willing to let it end there.

“As penance for arguing with me, I think you should have to wear the cuffs for an hour.”

“Come on,” I cried, “he already said you was right and he was wrong. Just take ‘em off already so we can play rundown.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Joey said, leaning into Ted so they were only a few inches apart “If God wants you out of those cuffs, He’ll keep the key from falling through the crack.”

Now I don’t think Joey was really aiming as he held the key in front of him. Even if he had been I don’t think he could have dropped the key so it fell between the two-centimeter space between the wooden floor boards. But when he let go, the key it slipped right through, didn’t touch the sides or nothing. If he had dropped it ten thousand times, it wouldn’t have gone through that crack as smoothly as it did with that first and only drop. And then Joey looked at Ted and you could tell he was sorry. His eyes had that surprised look that comes from realizing that the impossible is merely improbable.

“You idiot,” Ted screamed. “Why’d you have to do that?”

“I didn’t mean it.”

“Why you always got to be joking around with stuff? Why can’t you just leave well enough alone?”

“You’re the one that put on the cuffs.”

“I thought you knew how to get them off.”

The two continued to blame each other for the event, but they were both secretly on the same side. Neither wanted the adults to know they were playing with handcuffs. If I was to guess, Ted knew his mother would think he was being stupid for letting himself be cuffed and Joey knew his mother would be mad he’d taken something from her room. They both needed to get the key back so no adult would know they had been horsing around. The problem was the pavilion sat on a little hill and the pool manager had put lattice panels between the pillars so kids couldn’t play underneath it. He even had the guards tell us there were snakes and rats under the pavilion, though it was more likely he just didn’t want teenagers to have a place to make out.

The three of us ran down the hill to investigate the lattice fence. The rest of the kids who had been so enthralled by the handcuffs moments prior had left, fearing the key wouldn’t be found and association with Ted and Joey would just get them in trouble too. I must admit I considered fleeing when I saw the key fall through the crack. I mean, Ted and Joey were only summer friends, the people you killed time with while waiting for the school year to begin. It wasn’t the same loyalty one had for school-year friends. Not by a long shot. But seeing as the summer was only half over, I figured I should help. We looked at the fence to see if there was any place we could squeeze through. There wasn’t. Wouldn’t you know the fence was the first thing the pool manager had ever built without making a mistake?

“Well, now what?” Ted cried.

“I don’t know.”

“Think we can saw them off?” I asked.

Almost in unison, the two rejected my plan.

“I’m not letting you saw anywhere near me,” Ted said.

While Joey added, “We can’t ruin my Mom’s cuffs.”

So there it was, we couldn’t get to the key and couldn’t cut the cuffs. I started playing with one of lattice boards. The nails were far enough apart that you could bend the middle a bit. It wasn’t enough to fit through, not even for Ted who was the skinniest, but all the sudden the fence didn’t seem like such an obstacle.

“Hey,” I said, pulling on a lattice panel to show how flexible they were, “I bet if we got a hammer we could remove the bottom nails and pry this open enough to get inside.”

“Where we gonna find a hammer?”

“Wait here,” I said, remembering the tool box Hank kept in his car.

I ran up the hill to the guard’s office. Hank was in the lifeguard chair, which was great because he was the last guard that’d be willing to help me. I couldn’t see his eyes because he was wearing his sunglasses with the mirrored lenses, but I could tell he was watching me as I went by. He kept twirling his whistle around his middle and index fingers as nonchalantly as all the guards did, but I knew he was watching me, watching me and thinking.

One of the other guards gave me the keys to Hank’s car, without even asking why I needed them. With Hank there would have been about a million questions and even then he probably would have walked me to the car instead of giving me the keys. It was twelve twenty-five when I got to the tool box and found the hammer, which meant I only had five minutes to get back to the fence before Hank’s chair shift was over. I put the hammer in my trunks so the handle ran along my thigh with the head sticking out my waistband. Then I pulled on my T-shirt to make it look a little bulkier. I couldn’t tell if the hammer was hidden or if I just looked incredibly suspicious. But at least I had it along my left leg, which would be on the outside as I walked past Hank. The other guards, including the one who gave me the keys, I could count on to ignore me. They were always too busy flirting with one another to pay attention to a swamp rat like me.

We got the nails out of the fence and eased the lattice board so it was wide enough to fit through. Ted didn’t want to go in because he was cuffed, and Joey didn’t want to go because deep inside he wasn’t sure if there were snakes under the pavilion or not. So even though I was the least involved with the handcuff debate, I was the one who had to go searching. I was on my knees with Ted and Joey folding the fence up when I heard the familiar cry of my brother’s voice.

“What are you doing?”

The boys put down the fence and I turned to Hank, with my head hung low.

“Well,” he asked.

I nodded to Ted, who lifted his hands.

“We lost the key,” I said.

With a certain amount of disgust Hank repeated my words. “You lost the key.”

“It’s under the pavilion,” Joey said. “Most likely by the third pillar.”

“Why do you have handcuffs?”

We looked at each other for a few seconds, but I suppose neither Ted nor Joey knew how they had come to debate the legality of owning handcuffs. Or maybe at that moment they just realized how stupid the argument was.

“Never mind,” Hank said, pushing past me. “I’ll find it for you.”

He handed his glasses to Joey and motioned for me and Ted to pull the fence open.

“If you drop my glasses,” Hank said, entering the hole, “we’re gonna board it up with you inside.”

He was gone for a good five minutes, though the amount of expletives he let out could have lasted a sailor several weeks. When he came back his white tank top was covered in dirt and his feet looked uglier than a homeless man’s teeth. But he had the key.

“Thanks,” Ted said as Hank unlocked him.

“Now fix that board, and put the hammer back in my toolbox.”

Hank was leaving a small trail of dirt as he walked up the hill. Joey ran after him and handed Hank the glasses.

“You’re not going to tell my mom about this, are you?”

Hank put on the glasses.

“Who’d ever believe you swamp rats would have a pair of handcuffs?”

Joey watched as I hammered the board back in place. “Your brother’s really cool,” he said. “Much better than my brother.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “sometimes he’s all right.”

We walked back up the hill to our spot on the pavilion. Joey was lightly tossing the key up and down and Ted was rubbing his wrists as if the handcuffs had actually fit, as if they’d been worn for some extended amount of time.

“You think I could shoot a bottle rocket out of my bare hand,” Ted said as we sat down.

“No way,” Joey answered. “No way in hell.”

“I don’t know,” Ted continued, “I bet I could.”

***

mike_koenig_photo

Mike Koenig received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He currently lives in Columbia, Maryland and works for Discovery Communications. His fiction can be seen in Phoebe, Quiddity, Clover, Kestrel, and The Tulane Review.

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