Read Drowning Lessons Online

Authors: Peter Selgin

Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)

Drowning Lessons

DROWNING LESSONS

WINNER OF THE
FLANNERY O'CONNOR AWARD
FOR SHORT FICTION

DROWNING LESSONS

STORIES BY PETER SELGIN

Published by the University of Georgia Press

Athens, Georgia 30602

www.ugapress.org

© 2008 by Peter Selgin

All rights reserved

Designed by Walton Harris

Set in Garamond Premier Pro

Printed and bound by Thomson-Shore

The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

Printed in the United States of America

12 11 10 09 08
C
5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Selgin, Peter.

Drowning lessons : stories / by Peter Selgin.

      p. cm. — (The Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction)

ISBN
-13: 978-0-8203-3210-9 (hardcover : alk. paper)

ISBN
-10: 0-8203-3210-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)

I. Title.

PS
3619.
E
463
D
76 2008

813′.6—dc22                           2008020377

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available

ISBN for this digital edition: 978-0-8203-3969-6

for George, my brother

There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.

—
KABIR

CONTENTS

Swimming

The Wolf House

Color of the Sea

Driving Picasso

Sawdust

Our Cups Are Bottomless

The Girl in the Story

The Sea Cure

Wednesday at the Bagel Shop

El Malecón

Boy B

The Sinking Ship Man

My Search for Red and Gray Wide-Striped Pajamas

Acknowledgments

DROWNING LESSONS

SWIMMING

HE PLACED THE OARS
in their locks and the floating seat cushion on the backseat. He wrapped his goggles in the towel and dropped it between the forward seat and the bow, where the aluminum hull was dry. He pushed against the bow and felt the stern go buoyant as it splashed into the lake. When the prow touched water he gave a last shove, then climbed in and began rowing, eager to get to the float, his private place.

The water, except where he defiled it with the oars (and where insects frayed across its surface, making fern patterns), was smooth as glass. Already the sky had turned a deep, warm blue streaked with white, like chalk marks on a slate board. A single-engine plane grumbled. On the close shore, rings of reflected sunlight thrown up by his wake shimmied like pale silk garters up the trunks of birch trees. As always, he tried not to splash while rowing.

He was seventy-two years old.

Every August for the past twelve years Frank and his wife, Dorothy, had come to the small lake in northern New Jersey, less than an hour's drive from New York City. Theirs was one of a
dozen cabins dotting Lake Juliet's wrinkled shore. By planting flowers and a vegetable garden with tomatoes and squash and hanging their daughter's art school watercolors over the couch, they had made the place their own. There was no telephone, no radio, no television. The lake was the only distraction. They liked it that way.

It was not even a lake, really, but an overgrown pond. In fifteen minutes one could row from one end to the other. Still, they preferred to think of it as a lake, “our lake,” they called it. It was where they came to escape the pounding heat and headaches of the subway, the black vulgar headlines of the
New York Post
, the noise and soot of traffic, and the tyranny of air-conditioning and closed windows. It was where, before retiring, he had come to escape his job as the supervisor of a four-color printing press, and she hers as a seller of advertisements for a fashionable glossy women's magazine.

Skimming close to the float, Frank pulled both oars out of the water, laid them inside, and glided the rest of the way. Once at the ladder, he grabbed it with one hand while securing a line around it with a clove hitch. Then, taking his towel and goggles, he climbed out of the boat and stood on the float, watching the last wisps of vapor melt off the lake's calm surface.

Back in their cabin, meanwhile, Dorothy prepared breakfast. She fried bacon and mixed pancake batter. For two people who understood each other very little, they had many understandings, one of which was that Frank would swim and she would cook breakfast. It was one of their many routines in a marriage that often seemed to consist of nothing but routines. Sometimes, standing on the float as he did now, Frank smelled, or imagined that he could smell, bacon frying. He could see Dorothy's arms holding
the heavy skillet, the flesh of her triceps pillowy and drooping. She had been a good-looking woman once, her Irish features square and strong. But she had let herself go. Her once-slim waist was gone, and her arms and legs had lost their tone. Still, she had a lovely smile, her cheeks round and sweet as apricots ripe for picking, and her pale eyes were still bright. It saddened him to look down from those changeless eyes and see the rest of her so changed.

The sun struck the float full. Soon Frank's shoulders baked, and he could feel the day's heat singeing his cheeks and forehead. He stood there, his skin as dark and leathery as a catcher's mitt, scanning the water's surface. He had always prided himself on being fit and trim. Unlike Dorothy, who now dressed modestly in loose-fitting clothes and seldom appeared naked even in private, Frank liked to live close to his skin. He liked the feel of his strong body, enjoyed its nakedness, here at the lake as well as back in their New York apartment — despite large untreated windows staring out into other apartments. His wife was always nagging him either to cover himself or to buy them curtains. But Frank did neither. “Let them look,” he said, “if it gives them pleasure. It's the least we can do for our lovely neighbors.”

Despite his boastful teasing, Frank understood that, while his wife was fairly typical, he was something of a freak. While Dorothy's body sagged and puffed like those of many women her age, his stood in sharp contrast to the bodies of other men in their seventies. He exercised fanatically, and because of this his belly and limbs were as hard, muscular, and lean as they had been at twenty-five, or even twenty. But his face, that of an ordinary man of seventy-two, with its creased forehead and sagging jaw and large ears sprouting white hairs, no longer went with the body
underneath it. It was as though his head and his body belonged to two different people.

He spat into his swimming goggles, smeared saliva onto their lenses, snapped them on, and adjusted them.

Through the goggle lenses he saw something. On the near shore of the lake, some three hundred yards away, parked on the dam, was a small gray car. It had been years since Frank had last seen a car parked there. Near the dam stood a cabin nicknamed the Icehouse, used for that purpose a half century earlier, when the lake had been carved and carted away each winter. The least popular of the cabins, it lacked a septic system because of its proximity to the dam and had an outhouse instead. For as long as he could remember, the cabin had gone unrented and so had been overtaken by scraggly shrubs and weeds. Now, for the first time, a light burned softly inside.

Frank was not fond of change. When things were good, as they had always been at the lake, he liked them to stay just as they were, and so this sudden evidence of someone living in the Icehouse disturbed him, among other reasons because he chose to swim in this part of the lake for its privacy, for the luxury of being alone, all alone with the water and his healthy body. He would swim to shore and back, then lie on the float with his eyes closed, with the float lazily rocking him and the sun painting abstract masterpieces under his eyelids. He would catnap and sometimes even dream. That was his routine. And now it was threatened, shattered.

He rubbed his arms, coughed up some phlegm, spat in the water.

Oh well, he thought. Things change. What can you do? He plunged.

An arrow-shaped ache pierced his sternum; his mouth filled with cold green liquid. He spluttered and sloshed around ungracefully for a moment, amazed if not slightly alarmed by the audacity of a man his age plunging like a boy of ten or twelve. When his heart had settled a little, he looked toward the point on shore that was his destination. The car was still there, as was that light inside the cabin, its white trim obscured by ragged bushes. And something else too: a dot of bright red. Then the red dot moved. Someone was walking in front of the cabin.

He told himself to ignore whoever it was and swam, beginning with short easy strokes and increasing their length and speed gradually, letting his breath explode underwater, twisting his mouth into the air to refill his lungs, then exploding again, like a piston, his feet scarcely breaking the water's surface behind him as they kicked. As he swam, the lake held him, guided him, stroking his skin and seeming to be in perfect sympathy with every inch of his body, his flesh. He felt himself merging with the water as one merges with another person's body in the act of love. In truth, swimming was as close to lovemaking as Frank got these days, for Dorothy no longer attracted him, nor did she seem to find him attractive anymore, not that way, at any rate. She acknowledged neither his flesh nor her own, as if there were no such thing, only flowers, books, and jigsaw puzzles. Meanwhile, Frank exercised, growing stronger and firmer. Over time, like two rowboats, their bodies drifted further and further apart, with Frank rowing like crazy
and Dorothy serenely floating. From this awareness Frank swam away as though swimming from death itself.

When he reached the shore, Frank stopped and treaded water as gently as possible, catching his breath. This was the part he liked best. He barely moved his hands to keep floating. The merest fluttering motion of his fingers sufficed. Aside from his breathing, there was no sound. But as he floated on his back with his goggles collecting fog and the tops of birches swaying, he suddenly heard a series of piercing yelps. Turning, he saw a dark, blurry shape atop the dam. He pulled off his goggles. A dog, a German shepherd pup, stood barking at him.

He heard a woman's voice.

“Stop it, Harry!”

The woman ran up and put the dog on a leash, then stood there holding the dog. “I'm sorry,” she said looking down at him from on top of the dam. She had dark eyes and a round, pleasant face framed by hair just beginning to turn gray in places. She looked at him. She wore a red sweater.

“You must be a strong swimmer,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said, a little embarrassed, as if he'd been caught in some private act of intimacy.

“I sure wish I could swim like that.”

“Do you swim?” he asked, still treading water. The bottom could not have been more than inches away. Still, he chose not to touch it.

“Yes, but not half as good as you.”

Frank felt himself blush. It was a feeling he hadn't felt in a long time.

“Are you renting one of the cabins?” the woman asked.

“F-Troop,” he said, referring to his cabin's nickname. All the cabins at Lake Juliet had nicknames.

The woman smiled down at him, her dog panting gently at her side. She looked about thirty-five, maybe forty.

“This is my first time here,” she explained. Her eyebrows were heavy and dark in contrast to her hair. Under the red sweater she wore khaki shorts and sneakers with no socks.

“You here for the whole summer?” she asked.

“Just one month. And you?”

“Weekends only,” she said. “My name is Juliet, by the way.”

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