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Steven Carter

Swimmers

 

Connie and I were having an argument. Then someone began knocking on our front door, but we were having such a battle we just ignored it and kept on shouting at each other. But whoever it was kept on knocking, too--I thought they were going to beat a hole in the door. Every light in the house was on and both cars were in the driveway so I guess it was obvious enough we were home, and finally Connie, her face all red and puffy from crying, went to answer. It was her father, Truman.

Every so often, maybe every couple of months, Truman takes a notion to drive in from the retirement community where he lives and pay us an unannounced visit, and he always wants to take us out to this one blue-plate-special restaurant he's been patronizing for years, The Embers. He thinks we love it. But Truman's sixty-eight and a widower, and he's leaving us everything he's got, so I never suggest we don't go or that we at least go someplace different.

When Truman came in the living room I got up off the couch and shook his hand. We exchanged our usual greetings. Then me, him, and Connie stood there for a moment with nothing to say, until finally Truman asked if we wanted to go eat, then added, "I thought maybe you were down in the basement and couldn't hear me knocking. It's not a bad time, is it?"

"No, not at all," I said.

Connie agreed with me. Then we were standing there again, looking at each other.

"I suppose I should go get ready," Connie said and she headed for the stairs.

"Bring me a shirt when you come down," I said. I was wearing an undershirt and jeans, loafers without socks.

"I don't know what shirt you want," she said, climbing the steps, "so you just come pick it out yourself." She reached the top of the stairs and disappeared down the hall, and a few seconds later the bathroom door slammed shut. I looked over at Truman and smiled. Then I sat down on the couch again, and he settled himself across from me in the easy chair.

"So how've you been?" he said.

"Just fine."

"Good, good. Me, I had the toothache last week. Had to go to the dentist on Monday and Thursday both."

"I guess that took care of it."

"Uh-huh, it did. He went ahead and pulled it."

"That's probably best," I said.

Then upstairs Connie started banging around in the bathroom. There was a low crash, followed by cursing, and I knew the shelf had fallen out of the medicine cabinet again. It happened about once a week. I remembered it had happened to Truman, too, when he was spending the night last Christmas Eve.

"I could take a look at that," he said after a moment. "Got my tools in the trunk of the car. It'd be no trouble."

I shrugged. "That's all right. I'll get around to it."

"Well, whatever then," he said. He looked around the room. I watched him for a moment, then looked over at the television and thought about getting up and turning it on.

"It takes that Connie forever and a day to get herself fixed up," Truman said.

"You're right. It does," I said.

"You know, there's something I've been wanting to talk to you about," he said. "I'd say I'd have time enough to do it right now too, the way that Connie pokes along. If you don't mind, that is."

"No, not at all," I said.

"If I had a gun to my head I couldn't tell you what I had for supper last night," Truman began, "but I can remember The Embers, the way it used to be, that is, like it was yesterday. In my day it was the place to go. But truth be told, that's what starts happening, you know. Yesterday seems more clear than today. But I doubt you're interested in hearing that, are you? I admit, it's an old story, so I don't blame you one little bit"--he stopped talking and scooted up in his chair so that his shoulders were higher than the back cushion, then crossed his hands in his lap--"But to get back to my point, they'd have a band out there on the weekends," he said. "You could dance if you wanted to. County was dry back then, too, but you could take a bottle in there and they wouldn't bother you--that's just the kind of place it was, you see--nothing like it is today. Well, this one Friday night, Alana and me, we ate a couple of steaks at The Embers, and as usual I'd had to finish the half of hers she couldn't eat. After that we danced straight through one whole set; we both liked to do the two-step quite a bit. Then to cool off we decided to go driving in our little red-and-white cloth top, something we often did. On the two-lane toward Prentiss Mill. Not far from here. You know where that is don't you?"

I nodded and told him I did. "Sometimes I take a shortcut to work that way," I said.

He nodded. "There you go."

"It's actually a little longer, but in the mornings it's clear as a bell," I said. "Since the by-pass came in it doesn't get much traffic."

"I thought that might happen," he said. He smiled at me, and I smiled back. "Anyway, we drove for a while," he said. "Then I started racing the straights, going eighty-five, ninety, just so I could see Alana's hair blow. It was fine hair, long and black--that's where Connie gets hers, you know. But with the top down everything was beautiful. The moon was full, it looked like a big hole into something else. Alana kept telling me to slow down, but I knew she didn't mean it. She liked to go fast.

"Well, after a few minutes of this I get the idea to go skinny dipping. Hadn't been in years. By this time her shoes were off and her feet were up on the dash with her dress pushed up her legs. I was sure there was a back road to the lake coming up, and when I made the turn I told her I had a surprise. She kept asking what it was, laughing and tickling me, but I wouldn't tell. Then she did something strange. She reached down and threw her shoes out. Her best shoes, black high heels. I started to stop but she said no go on, she didn't want her shoes and she didn't want to stop.

"But I'd taken the wrong road. I kept making different turns, driving around. We were lost. Finally I made a left onto this dirt road with trees on both sides that made everything dark, hard to see, and I slowed down considerably. Then suddenly the road stopped and the lake was in front of us. It was deserted. There was no more road, a dead end, nothing to do but get out and swim."

Then Truman stopped talking. He crossed his arms, and I saw that there were goose bumps on his skin. It had been one of those hot summery days you sometimes get in March, but after nightfall it had turned chilly. So I got up to turn on the heat but I also thought that maybe I could slip on upstairs, too.

"Where're you going?" he said.

"Nowhere. Just getting this." I revolved the thermostat until the heat kicked on. "I thought you were finished."

"No, not quite," he said. "There's not too much left, though."

I came back to the couch.

"It was funny," he said. "She made me look the other way while she undressed. She'd never been delicate about those things. But when we got in the water and were holding each other, we had our fun standing right there, about chest deep in a swimming place between two little piers. The bottom was muddy and it was hard to stand up, but we did. Then we stood there a while longer and let the water lap up against us. It was warm. Then she kissed me and pulled away, splashed and said something I couldn't hear. She took off swimming.

"I followed her. But I couldn't see her too good, she looked like an x-ray or something, all this white in the dark water. I caught up at one of the piers. We started horsing around, standing there splashing and shoving and what not, then in the middle of all of it she reached in and pinched me under the ribs where it really hurts, and without thinking I pushed her away hard. She fell back and hit her head against one of the creosote poles holding up the pier, and I caught her right before she slipped under."

Truman stopped talking again, glanced at me, then stared at a point just to the right of my head. I uncrossed my legs and then crossed them again with the other leg on top, and waited for him to go on, get whatever this was over with.

"She was out cold," he said. "Of course I was scared, felt awful. But I could feel her breath on my fingers, and I knew she'd be all right. Just have a headache the next day. I started dragging her to shore. She was a little woman, but she was heavy enough, let me tell you, and about halfway in I stopped to rest. I hugged her up close against me, the way we'd stood before. The water was waist deep, still warm. Then as I was catching my breath, I don't know what it was, maybe because she was so helpless, I found myself running my hands over her, touching her. Her head was hanging down like one of those puppets when they let go the strings. I wanted her to wake up. But then again I didn't. I didn't know what I wanted. I swung her back and forth a couple of times, then leaned her against me and started dancing her through the water, up and back, to the side, swinging her around, all these songs in my head, thinking she'd wake up. I kissed her. But it was like she wasn't my wife until she opened her eyes, just this hundred pounds that belonged to me. I stopped. Then I hooked my elbow around her neck and pulled her past the piers, then swam with her like a lifeguard out toward the middle of the lake. I didn't have anything in particular in mind, I was just doing it because I could. I stopped and treaded water and floated her on her back with my hands underneath for support. The moon was hitting her bright. I wanted to see if she'd float without me. I pulled my hands out. She hung there a few seconds, then slipped under. I caught her. I did it again, and counted eight before she started down. Then I did it a third time, and when she went under my arms didn't move. I watched her fall away until all I was seeing was water. When I dove under it was dark, nothing but dark, and she was gone. I kept diving, but she was gone."

Then he looked straight at me. He looked at me like he wanted me to answer, but I had no idea what to say. I knew Connie's mother had drowned when she was eight or nine but the version I'd heard was nothing like this; after a moment, though, my mind started working, and I began to put two and two together. I had heard about the minds of the old snapping all at once, seeing ghosts everywhere. There was some kind of dinky fishing lake out there at Truman's community, and I could imagine him going out to that lake by himself day after day, sitting with his line in the water, or going for lonely walks around the shore, or maybe spending time out there talking to the other old men, and, somehow, what with having a wife who actually had drowned, it had all melted into this in his head. I felt sorry for him. Then I thought about Connie. But then I saw how this might affect me, how Truman might be coming to live with us sometime soon unless I could talk Connie into a nursing home.

"I don't know what to say, Truman," I finally said.

"I told the right lies," he said, "and it got called an accident. But what it was, and this is all, is that I wanted to see it."

I nodded. Then I stared at the floor, fidgeted with my hands, said, "Well," and stood up. "I guess I better go get dressed."

Truman started to say something else, but he didn't. He just nodded.

Upstairs, Connie was in the bedroom. She had put on a dress that showed off her legs and she was standing at my side of the closet pushing clothes around, the hangers making little screeches on the metal rod. I sat down behind her on the bed. Then a pair of my slacks slipped off a hanger and landed in a heap at the bottom of the closet, on top of some shoe boxes. She didn't move to pick them up, didn't even start to.

"What?" she said.

"I didn't say anything."

"Do you want to?" She pulled out one of my white shirts and handed it back to me.

"Yes. Yes, I do. I want to say a couple of things. First thing is, all that stuff I said earlier . . . I guess I shouldn't've, and I'm just sorry, honey."

"Well me too," she said.

I came off the bed and we embraced in front of the closet. We kissed, and I worked a hand inside the back of her dress in the space between two buttons. After a minute or so we broke off. She smiled up at me and said, "You're a nut. You know that?"

"I know. You too, though," I said.

"I can't imagine what Dad must think of us," she said. Then she reached down and played with the hem of my undershirt and said, "Pobre cito cocotolito," one of about three pet names she has for me. The other two are in English and they're silly enough, and this one means `poor little crocodile' in Spanish, which she took in school, and the way she usually says it sounds dirty. It did this time, too, and after she said it she stepped behind me and lifted the undershirt over my head, dropped it on the floor, and started giving me quick wet little kisses between the shoulder blades--a move which always drives me out of my socks. She kept doing it. Then downstairs, the television started going. There was a loud whoop followed by Indian drums, gunshots, music.

"You said there were a couple of things," Connie said. She pressed up against me and kissed the back of my neck and let her hand work its way around front. "What's the other one?"

"It's about your father," I said. I reached back and grabbed her thigh and started squeezing it. "But it can wait a few minutes."

"You sure?" she asked.

"I'm sure."

"Positive?" she giggled.

"I'm sure," I said again, turning to her.

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