The Ring Test
Manny was nearly thirteen and still thought pot and weed were different things, but he was no fool. He knew where April went when she ran away. He knew she was driving their mom crazy. And he knew his mom’s shitty old Ford Taurus hated rain. It was never going to start. They might as well give up.
Storm clouds had rolled in the day before and stuck. Raindrops thrummed on the car’s roof in the gray morning light. Still the two of them sat for ten minutes while Manny’s mom cranked at the ignition and the Taurus went rrrrrr, rrrrrr, rrrrrr. Same thing every time with that car, but she wasn’t about to pay a jillion dollars to have some snide mechanic give her a gibberish explanation or tell her how he couldn’t find a single thing wrong. She pulled the key out of the switch and let her hand fall into her lap. She was going to be late for work. He was going to be late for school. She sighed in her typical way, eyes downcast and shoulders drooping as the air went out of her.
“Sorry,” Manny said.
His mom leaned to her left, then craned toward the rearview mirror.
“Why are you sorry?” she asked, but Manny could tell she wasn’t paying attention to her own words. He knew what she was looking at. His sister’s Jeep had been parked on the curb in front of their house since Saturday. Five days and April hadn’t come home, hadn’t even called. The Jeep was older and shittier than the Taurus.
Manny said, “I wish it didn’t rain today.”
“Where does she keep her extra key?” his mom asked.
Manny thought of the orange shoebox under his sister’s bed. He imagined what clutter it held—coins, lighters, rock-hard bubble gum, those Trojan things, empty perfume bottles, metal clips that looked like tiny alligator jaws, and a pile of school pictures of friends from back in grade school and middle school. Somewhere in there was a key chain. He could picture it. And he could picture the mess inside the Jeep—smashed cigarette packs and empty Mountain Dew cans covering the floor, probably a brown bottle rolling in the back, and maybe some pot or weed or whatever in the glove compartment.
“Extra key?” Manny said.
His mom looked at her watch.
“It must be somewhere,” she said.
“I’ll look,” Manny said. “You have to call school. I’m supposed to have a test first hour.”
His mom’s eyes bulged.
“A test?” she said. “You never told me.”
“It’s just Healthful Living,” Manny said. “It’s dumb.”
His mother sighed again before she got out of the car. Manny followed her through the front door and kicked himself into a higher gear as she headed for the kitchen to find the school’s phone number. He thundered upstairs, burst into his sister’s bedroom, slid onto the floor, and wedged his head and shoulder under her bed. He reached for the orange box. His best hope was to beat his mother to the Jeep and hide all the bad stuff before she came out. He hurried back downstairs, and as he headed toward the door, he could hear his mother still opening and closing kitchen drawers.
The Jeep was locked, which made Manny groan. Why bother locking that thing? Rust bubbling on its white body made it look like a bad acne case, and the dozen or so strips of silver duct tape suturing the faded ragtop didn’t help. Manny opened the passenger door and sized things up. Not too bad, really. He grabbed a flattened Fritos bag from the floor, stuffed it full of cigarette packs, and crammed the whole thing into his backpack. The rest of the mess was just soda cans, food wrappers, and empty Tic Tac boxes and Altoid tins. April was really into mints.
Manny threw a bunch of trash into the back, then climbed in and slammed his door. He glanced at the house before opening the glove compartment. He knew he would find the little wooden box with the small brass pipe nestled inside. Manny took it in his hand. He didn’t know how his sister had gotten it, but he knew it was called a dugout and that what she smoked in the little pipe would freak out their mom.
The clatter of the front storm door made Manny look up. There was his mom, using her leg to prop it open as she reached back to lock the deadbolt. He clasped his fingers around the dugout, then leaned back, lifted his hips, and crammed the thing deep into the front pocket of his blue jeans.
Manny and his buddy, Gatwech waited as long as possible to take off their clothes. They were the scrawniest guys in class—short, twiggy, and hairless below the collar. They weren’t proud. Their gym teacher, Mr. Seastrand, ran the locker room with the courtesy of a prison guard. He blew his whistle and barked at boys to hurry up, jump in those showers, soap up. He seemed to take particular pleasure in the swimming unit, which required showers before and after each period’s activity. Gatwech had told Manny more than once that his stepdad said to look out for Mr. Seastrand. The boys didn’t know for sure what that meant.
Today was the last day of swimming, which might’ve been a relief if they weren’t aware of the legendary ring test, if they hadn’t feared it practically since the first day at middle school. Manny took off his shoes and socks as everyone stripped and Mr. Seastrand yelled three minutes, two minutes, get going, get going. Only he and Gatwech were still at the lockers when he finally unzipped his pants, eased them down a bit, and stepped out as though he had something delicate in his pocket, like something living or precious and not a little dugout full of pot or weed. He folded his pants once and rolled them up with the pockets snug on the inside of the denim coil. Doing so he caught a whiff of something, a faint stink that took him back to that day at the Cannon River when he’d first encountered that smell. Smoky. Rotten. Earthy. Bitter. Swampy.
Manny held his jeans near his face and inhaled.
“What’d’ya do in those pants?” Gatwech asked.
“Ha-ha.” Manny tucked the roll onto the top shelf.
“Gat!” Mr. Seastrand yelled from beyond rows of rusting lockers. “You’re last again!”
The two boys nearly flipped. They crammed the rest of their things into the lockers and took off in a waddle-run to the showers, and when Mr. Seastrand saw them coming down the aisle, he sneered and hollered at them to walk. Only three other guys were still in the showers. Manny followed the boys’ code—leave an empty slot between you and the next guy, always face the wall, and look only at your own body, the floor, or the ceiling. Mr. Seastrand waited at the doorway, holding over his folded arm a stack of school-issued bathing suits, which he would dispense to each boy after ordering him out of the shower. The practice of requiring students to wear the school suits disgusted the kids and perturbed many parents, but while outsiders questioned its usefulness, Mr. Seastand and the other PE teachers maintained it was the only way to ensure hygienic practices and appropriateness. So while the rest of the world marched on, boys at Manny’s school slipped into suits that seemed to have come from the time of black-and-white pictures.
In the shower Manny ducked his head under the streaming water and closed his eyes. He’d heard rumors that they sometimes did secret locker checks when the kids were in gym. He knew a story about an eighth-grader who’d gotten busted for having a butterfly knife, but he wasn’t sure it was true.
“Time’s up!” Mr. Seastrand said. “Let’s go, Gat.”
Two class periods had passed smoothly. Manny had played it cool with the dugout. He’d positioned a folder over his pocket during hall passing times, and he’d nudged it around to the inside of his thigh when he took a seat in class. He considered dumping the thing, but he didn’t know how he could or if he should. Would it flush down the toilet? Could it be that easy? Would April kill him?
The hoot of Mr. Seastrand’s whistle echoed against the tile surfaces of the shower room. Manny looked around and realized he was alone.
“Wake up!” Mr. Seastrand yelled.
Manny twisted off the water and stiff-legged it out of there, cupping his hands over his crotch.
“Knock it off,” Mr. Seastrand said. “We’re men here.”
“I know.” Manny kept his eyes on the floor. “Sorry.”
“Small,” Mr. Seastrand said. “Here.”
Manny reached up and received a tiny set of swimming trunks—smaller than any underwear he owned. They’d probably been blue once, but had faded to purplish gray. All the stretch had gone out of them. Manny squeaked his legs through the holes, pulled them up, and tucked in the drawstring.
Mr. Seastrand ordered the class to sit around the lip of the diving well, where one at a time they would try to pass the ring test. The teacher held up three pink rubber rings and explained the rules. They’d have forty-five seconds to retrieve all three from the bottom of the pool, which was fourteen feet down. They could bring up only one at time, and they were to set each near Mr. Seastrand’s feet, catch a bit a breath, and dive down again. Manny and Gatwech calculated they couldn’t waste more than five seconds each time they surfaced. They also concluded the ring set test served no purpose in real life and had been created by their teacher only to make them suffer.
No one spoke up when Mr. Seastrand asked for a volunteer. The twenty-four boys and girls stared at the bottom far below. Since the first day of the swimming unit, they’d survived through a sense of mutually assured humiliation, and they’d all done their best not to stare at each other. The boys, in their tiny Aquaman trunks, could keep no secrets about themselves, but the girls weren’t done any favors by the school-issued one-piece suits, snug in all the wrong places and droopy around the chest and seat. The only exception was Kimby Olson, who sat right next to Manny. She was a tall, weird girl who always did the raccoon thing with black makeup around her eyes and who was nothing great in her regular clothes. But Manny had noticed that, in the one-piece, Kimby showed shiny skin on her long arms and legs and had a kind of bouncy butt without bit of fat anywhere. Plus her boobs looked bigger than he expected.
“No one’s feeling brave?” Mr. Seastrand said. “Then it’s up to me.”
He hardly paused before pointing out his choice. “Gat, you’re first. Last out of the locker room, first in the pool.”
Before lowering himself in, Gatwech leaned toward Manny and whispered, “You’re lucky he never remembers your name.”
Manny knew it was true. He’d been the last out. He belonged in that pool. But speaking up would do no good for anybody. Contradicting Mr. Seastrand wasn’t the path to peace and happiness in gym class.
Gatwech swam to the center of the small pool and began treading.
“You’ve got forty-five seconds from my whistle,” Mr. Seastrand said.
The whistle chirped, and Gatwech went under. Manny watched his friend invert his body and kick toward the bottom, where the pink rings lay scattered. He watched his friend, but his thoughts hurried back to the locker room, to his rolled up jeans, to the dugout in his jeans pocket. He imagined opening the locker and finding one of those cartoon bombs—like a bowling ball with a smoking fuse. Boom. His life explodes.
When Gatwech surfaced with the first ring, Manny counted under his breath—one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi—and yelled “Dive!” Gatwech sucked in a cheek-bulging breath and went under again. Thinking of April stoked Manny’s nerves. She always made things hard for him. She fought with their mom, challenged the simplest rules, and generally made messes for Manny to clean up or cover up—if only so he wouldn’t get the brunt of his mom’s anger or frustration or sadness. His sister was the hissing bomb in their house, and he didn’t want to know what she did when she was out with her red-eyed friends.
A murmur rose among the class when Gatwech fumbled with the second ring at the bottom, but he got hold of it and rocketed upward. He broke through the surface desperate-eyed and gasped loudly as he stroked toward the edge, toward Mr. Seastrand’s feet. Manny counted five Mississippis again, but Gatwech didn’t dive when ordered. He clung to the edge and huffed two, three, four more big breaths.
“Twenty seconds!” Mr. Seastrand said. “Nineteen … eighteen … seventeen …”
“Hurry up!” Kimby screamed, startling Manny. “Hurry, you idiot!”
Everyone laughed, and a few kids joined Seastrand’s countdown. Then the whole class was shouting except for Manny. He watched his friend push from the edge and dive under again. Gatwech jerked and kicked quickly downward this time and snatched the final ring cleanly.
As Gatwech rose, Manny began worrying about his turn, imagining how he’d probably run out of breath and have to give up, and how Mr. Seastrand would say, like always, that the only sure way to be a loser was to be a quitter. Gasping and bug-eyed, Gatwech broke the surface as the countdown hit five. He smiled when the class yelled out “four … three …” and slapped the ring on the pool deck with two seconds to spare. Everyone cheered. Even Mr. Seastrand smiled. He reached down with an extended hand to help Gatwech from the water.
Manny slipped into the pool without waiting for his name—or whatever Mr. Seastrand came up with—to be called. He side-stroked to the middle and waited while the teacher tossed the rings in one by one, and the class watched them sink. A good thing, Manny realized, was that with all the crap going on today the ring test seemed pretty meaningless and dumb. He was thinking of his sister when the whistle blew and he dove toward the first ring. The force of the pressure in his ears surprised him, as did the slowness of his downward progress. He was thinking of his sister again when he grabbed the ring. He always came to her rescue; she never did the same for him.
When he came up and swam toward the edge, Manny looked at his friend, who stood dripping beside their teacher.
Gatwech shouted, “Hurry, Manny! You’re too slow!”
Angry blood surged to Manny’s arms and legs. He smacked the ring onto the pool deck and dove for the bottom again. April never worried about him or their mom. She messed everything up, took off for days at a time, and left him drowning there in quiet house. Ears ringing in the depths and eyes burning from chlorine, he grabbed the second ring and kicked toward the top. The class roared when he broke the surface. The countdown was on. Manny couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying, but he knew wasn’t going to make it.
“The Ring Test” is a chapter is from Nick Healy’s forthcoming novel, Just a Boy. Nick is a short-story writer whose first book, It Takes You Over, won New Rivers Press’ Many Voices Project award and was released in 2012. Healy’s stories have appeared in North American Review, Water~Stone Review, Speakeasy, Minnesota Monthly, Great River Review, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories, Tartts Four: Incisive Fiction, and Blink Again: Sudden Fiction from the Upper Midwest.