“And who’s ready for Bible time?”
Miss Calloway smiled with satisfaction as the Lil’ Lions of Pacific Grove Church’s Sunday School program scampered to the foam mats on the floor.
The children were all between 6 and 9 years of age - perhaps the last joyful stage of childhood before the onset of hormones and self-consciousness and true awareness.
Miss Calloway smoothed the front of her skirt and clasped her hands together, “Today, we’ll be learning about how Jesus helped his disciple Peter walk on water. And just like Peter, Jesus wants each one of you to take risks...”
Sundry snickers arose from a pocket of the encircled children. Little Joey Jermaine Holden, 7 years old, tow-headed and still not grown into his overly-large ears, turned to a pair of recalcitrant rapscallions and firmly ‘shushed’ them.
“I can’t hear Miss Calloway!” said Joey, scrunching up his nose at his peers, who looked at him the way that certain cats regard humans.
Miss Calloway smiled at Joey and clasped her hands patiently; slowly, the children went quiet.
Beginning to tell the story from Matthew 14, Miss Calloway once again put her MFA in drama to good use. She rocked back-and-forth to indicate when things were getting ‘wavy’, she shook and quaked when the disciples called out, “It’s a ghost!”, and - when Peter took his all-important first step out of the boat - she held out her hands horizontally and teetered as if conducting an elaborate balancing act, one foot on a wave-tossed boat, and one foot on the waves themselves.
Once on the waves, she made as if she was on a tight-rope, moving step-by-tentative-step across the classroom’s linoleum floor.
“But when Peter saw the wind, he became afraid, and began to sink.”
She made a wild flailing motion to indicate that she was falling under the waves.
“Save me, Jesus!” Miss Calloway cried out.
Joey hugged his knees to his chest and watched with abject fascination. She suddenly stopped waving her arms, and turned to the children, her eyes wide with excitement,
“And then Jesus - immediately - reached out his hand and caught him.”
She erected herself and puffed out her chest, casting one arm downward and clasping the imaginary wrist of Peter.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” she said in an authoritarian voice.
A pugnacious-looking 9-year old with freckles and a bowl haircut raised his hand, and at the same time asked, “What if Jesus had let Peter drown?”
Nervous laughter arose from some of the children.
Joey Jermaine capped a hand over his mouth, and looked at Miss Calloway with wide, expectant eyes.
Miss Calloway was used to the occasional blasphemy of Sunday School attendees. She ran her hands down the front of her skirt and planted her fists into her sides.
“Jesus will never let anyone drown. It’s not in his nature, because that’s not in the Father’s nature. We have a good, good Father.”
“My cousin drowned,” piped up a doe-eyed little girl with French braids, in a somewhat somber tone. “Last summer, in a boating accident.”
“I’m so sorry that happened, Rachel,” said Miss Calloway, and she bent down to grasp Rachel's hand and give a reassuring squeeze. “But it’s important to understand, God doesn’t desire anyone to die like that. Tragedies happen because we live in a broken, fallen….”
“Maybe she didn’t call out to Jesus,” suggested Joey.
“Joey...No, that’s not how it works,” Miss Calloway said, a flash of horror passing over her face.
“She was a Christian!” protested the little girl.
“Of course, Rachel, God loved your cousin very much….”
“But did she have faith?” asked Joey. He knew he had screwed up as soon as the word ‘faith’ left his mouth. Rachel dipped her head forlornly, and Miss Calloway flushed red.
“That’s enough, Joey,” Miss Calloway snapped..
Outside the classroom, the distant, tinny voice of Pastor Rick - teaching ‘adult church’ - echoed through the hallways, as if being broadcast through a ventilation system.
Miss Calloway took a deep breath, “Now, I’d like to get back the story…”
Her voice turned back to a mellifluous Mother Goose salve, and she resumed the position of a savior reaching down to grab hold of the drowning.
“And so, Jesus pulled Peter up. And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.”
She wriggled her fingers and smoothly pushed her hands outward to indicate dying winds.
Joey Jermaine Holden immediately grasped the lesson of Matthew 14:29-33: Trust Jesus, and you could do the impossible.
The takeaway could not be so literal for Miss Calloway, who encouraged her children to “not be afraid of the waves this week.” And the point was even more abstracted by Pastor Rick, who was currently teaching on the same Scripture in ‘adult church’ - with a sermon titled ‘5 Keys to Mastering the Waves of Life.’
But Joey was convicted - he had to actively step out on the waves.
He had the direction from God. All he needed, he thought, was a little faith.
“Ahoy, Captain Joey!” cried out Barry Holden, waving to his son from the wheel of the small silver-and-red ski boat.
Joey giggled and waved vigorously, leaning over the stern of the 40-foot fishing boat, Leviathan. Dan Buchanan - a keg-shaped co-worker of Barry’s - obligingly steered his proud vessel closer towards the Holden’s boat so Joey could wave to his parents.
“Hi Dad!” Joey hollered. Dan, shirtless and sipping a beer, let Leviathan drift for a moment before firmly seizing the wheel and pressing on into the great expanse of San Diego bay.
In the ski boat, Barry said something to his wife - Jenny Holden, a volunteer at church bake sales for 10 years - and she tossed back her head and laughed.
Joey watched his parents confer from his perch on the deck of Leviathan, nervously rolling his fingertips. Jenny Holden grinned at her son across the water, and shouted something; the wind carried the sound away.
Joey leaned over the edge of the boat, cupping his hand to his ear.
“She said they’re having more fun without you,” muttered Charlie Holden, Dan’s 10-year-old son.
“Charlie!” barked his father. Charlie sulkily sunk his chin into his chest.
Dan, confident he had solved whatever nascent adolescent sass was besetting Charlie, sniffed and took a long draught from his IPA beer can.
“Hm. Would ya look at that view, boys. That’s America’s Finest City…”
Dan directed his young passenger’s gaze to the starboard side, where lay an idyllic stretch of San Diego coastline.
The Holden and Buchanan families had rented a vacation home together for 3 of the last 4 summers. The men, Barry and Dan, enjoyed taking the time to recharge and reflect after an invariably busy second quarter, typically starting out the five-day trip with a vow to ‘not talk about work’ and ending with heated, tequila-fueled kvetch sessions about their respective bosses. The mother’s took the time to tan, shop and swim.
And it was presumed, generally, that the kids enjoyed being at the beach.
Dan, for his part, appreciated little Joey’s company, and had felt magnanimous offering the boy a ride around the Bay on his new sailing vessel. Joey’s bright-eyed precociousness was occasionally grating - he had that tendency of certain children to ask fundamental questions from a first-principles standpoint, i.e. “Mr. Dan, why do fishermen have to use hooks? Doesn’t that hurt the fishies’ lips?” - but in general, he was good, polite company to have on board.
Dan thought his own son, Charlie, was growing up to become quite snot-nosed and punkish - though he felt fairly adept at hiding this growing disdain.
The wind picked up; Dan took another sip of his beer, and watched a bikini-clad girl fly by on water skis a hundred yards port side.
Meanwhile, Joey was leaning precariously over the stern, his neck craned towards his mother, who was waving from the ski boat, stretching farther and farther away.
Come seemed to be her general message.
He thought back to Miss Calloway; then, to Peter, stepping out on the waters of his fear. He swayed a little as a wave rolled under the boat.
Charlie watched him curiously.
“Hey, you gonna go swimming or something?” Charlie asked, chuckling huskily.
Joey turned to Charlie and shook his head.
“No, I can’t swim.”
And before Charlie could respond, Joey had stepped onto the stern’s edge, and then stepped out onto the water.
Not diving, not jumping. Stepping, as if descending a particularly steep staircase.
“Oh shit,” said Charlie. A tiny splash echoed over the edge of the boat.
Dan, for his part, didn’t notice anything amiss; he was revving the engine, getting ready to let ‘er rip and give the boys a real treat.
He heard the scream, distant and removed, and figured the girl had fallen off her water skis. Then he heard manly shouting, and recognized Barry’s distinct tenor.
Dan turned to starboard and saw Barry and Jenny, clutching their heads, pointing to the water churning out the back of Leviathan.
Dan looked around to review his passengers, made note that Joey was missing, and immediately put two-and-two together.
The most Charlie would remember of the next frantic few minutes was of Dan threatening him, assuming the worst - “What the hell did you do with the kid? What the hell?”
Then the maelstrom of the ensuing search; the Holdens guiding their ski boat towards Leviathan, achingly slow, both calling Joey’s name in an asynchronous, shrieking chorus, as if neither trusted the other to summon their child back from the waves.
Joey’s mom, hysterical, screaming and crying into Barry’s arms; Barry, white as a sheet, clutching his wife and looking like a man who had just been issued a punishment he thought long-coming.
Dan made a call from his marine radio, then pointed with two fingers sharply back towards shore.
“We gotta get back, guys. Coast Guard’s coming,” he shouted to the Holden’s. Jenny sank below view in the ski boat, while Barry steeled his jaw and slowly puttered after Leviathan.
Dan docked clumsily, and Charlie took a spill to the deck as Leviathan slammed into the seaweed-stained wooden pillars.
Once off the boat, Dan’s panic was still evident, which made Charlie suddenly fear he was a guilty party.
“Get inside, Charlie,” Dan said quickly to Charlie, his voice unnaturally high-pitched.
“Dad, I didn’t know...I didn’t know he would do that...He just walked right off….”
“You didn’t not know anything, understand, you didn’t see anything,” hissed Dan, grasping Charlie by the shoulder. His eyes suddenly shot up to Barry, who had just docked as well and was hoisting his limp, half-fainted wife off the boat.
“Inside,” repeated Dan. Charlie scampered off obediently, keeping his head down.
Charlie bounded up the wooden steps of the sea-foam colored condo's patio, feeling righteously angry.
“Pointless,” muttered Charlie. He had the sense that his being forced inside was a reflection of his dad’s inability to handle a complex situation.
He was on the patio now, staring through the screen doors into the condo's kitchen; a small figure was sitting at the kitchen table, his back to the patio.
Charlie’s mind circled on itself, trying to rationalize who could be at the table; there was no one else at the house besides Dan, the Holdens, and his mother - who was spending the day at a spa in town.
An intruder, thought Charlie, excitement filling his loins. He brushed off his blue t-shirt, stuck out his belly and rubbed his hands. He began to step very slowly across the wooden porch, wincing at each creak of wood.
As soon as he started opening the screen doors, the squeak of the door threw the entire plan of a stealthy sneak-attack out the window.
The figure at the table turned. Charlie cursed under his breath; then, his eyes widened with recognition.
“How - how did you get here?” stammered Charlie. “The boat...you walked... “
“Yeah. I walked back,” replied Joey. He licked a finger, which was covered in a slick purple slime.
“How?” said Charlie. He felt like he was going to say something more, but his tongue felt leaden.
“I had faith,” said Joey, his voice keening upward in delight. He licked his fingers again and turned back around.
Charlie ventured a step closer; he saw now that Joey was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Charlie watched Joey eat,, evidently completely unaware of the furor his disappearance had caused.
“You just made yourself that sandwich?” asked Charlie, still somewhat suspicious; a part of him was expecting the sandwich to suddenly drop out Joey’s back, covered in ghostly ectoplasm.
Joey, not deigning to answer such an obvious question, put the sandwich down - the half-eaten thing still bigger than his face - and looked at Charlie, suddenly serious.
“Where’s my momma? And Dad?”
Just then, there was a clamor on the porch; the grown-ups were back.
Joey beamed, and adjusted himself on his chair, sitting up on both knees and staring expectantly at the screen door.
“Momma,” he murmured, lovingly.
Charlie took a step back from the little boy - three years younger than him, lacking in basic reading skills, only recently having mastered how to use a toothbrush. He clutched his chest and uttered a name which he had only heard his Dad mutter in passing, in moments of intense frustration and stress.
Joey was back in Sunday School the next week. He had missed his time away the prior weekend; life at the beach was boring, he thought, besides his walk back from Mr. Buchanan’s boat.
“Did you have a good trip, Joey?” Miss Calloway asked, beaming.
“Yeah” said Joey, twisting his fingers around themselves. “I walked on water!”
Miss Calloway put a hand to her mouth and gasped, “Did you? Oh my….”
She then turned her attention to a little girl who was tugging at her skirt, asking for help with finding missing Candy Land player tokens.
Once the children gathered around for lesson time, Joey was feeling an unusual sense of expectation.
“Okay, friends, I hope you brought your warrior face today, because we’re going to be talking about…” She pointed to a cartoon image of a boy in a tunic, holding a slingshot, and a monstrous bare-chested man in a loincloth. “David and Goliath.”
Joey scooted forward excitedly on his bottom, and fervently shushed everyone around him. He broadly knew the tale of David and Goliath - how Goliath, a brute, had insulted David’s people, inspiring David’s fighter spirit and bringing him to slay Goliath with a slingshot - and was there a sword involved, too? Treasure? A crown?
In any case, whatever giants God had planned for Joey, he wanted to fight them all.