Individual Medley

Dale Davis

On the hillside west of the swimming pool, men with shovels followed the line of the fire, turning dirt onto glowing patches. Above them, on the ridge, a bulldozer clanked and roared as it cut a gap. The fire burned slowly through the dampened yellow grass, flaring only when a bush caught. Ashes lifted and broke apart, drifting down the hill. Ash rolled and scudded through the blackened stubble, across the green of the practice football field, wafting up to the chain-link fence surrounding the pool where it fluttered and broke on the wire.

Entering the pool enclosure, passing between gray bleachers, John Goodwin held his towel tightly against his side and dug into his jeans pocket for the dollar. The young girl who took the money sat cross-legged on a stack of kickboards, braiding her hair as she read the paperback held open between her feet. Holding the braid in place, she took the bill with her free hand and slipped it into the envelope beside her. John was looking out, across the pool and up the slope. A bright chartreuse pickup truck was bouncing through the smoke toward the firemen. “It’s a controlled burn,” the girl said. “They started it this afternoon when school let out.”

She handed him a clipboard with a pen tied to it and John signed on a numbered line beneath a long paragraph, acknowledging that he would not hold the local school district or the state of California responsible for anything that happened to him in the pool.

“Did they say how long it would go on?” She was reading his name. “What?” she said and looked up. “I guess until it burns out. Nobody said.”

There were two other lap swimmers. John tossed his towel down behind the fifth lane. He stepped out of his sandals and unbuttoned his Levi’s. Standing on one leg, he tugged at the other cuff and watched the lines of pale blue floats that divided the pool bob and turn. He listened to the slap of hands on the water and the soughing wash of the gutters. The odor of the fire was stronger here; he smelled the smoke on his sweater as he pulled it over his head.

John dabbed a foot in the water. It was warmer than the air, which was cooling rapidly as the sun lowered. He bent and dipped a hand in the water, splashed his legs, and rose, cupping another handful, which he tossed on his chest and rubbed on his shoulders. He dipped again, put the hands over his head, spread the fingers, and watched the water drip down past his eyes.

It was the oldest set of gestures he knew—the soothing ritual of a seven-year-old racer, preparing to climb onto the starting block.

His toes gripped the coping; his calves flexed and his knees bent. He shook his hands out, looked down the lane, and breathed deeper and deeper. Hanging on the side fence was a large lap clock. John watched the sweep hand and sucked air explosively as it ascended.

He bent deeper and swung his arms back until he was coiled. The sweep hand edged twelve. His arms whipped around in a full arc and he sprang. He was flat out over the water, trying to hollow. On a good racing dive, he remembered, you should feel like a cup. Descending, hands and feet should touch first. His head was too low and he plunged.

The water was a familiar shock, surrounding him like a cool, cloudy gas. He knew he’d gone too deep on the dive to recover. He relaxed, giving in to the gliding descent. One hand grazed the bottom. He swept his arms back and frog-kicked and continued into an easy breaststroke that brought him to the surface after half a lap. At the wall, he pulled into a curl and kicked off into a backstroke. He watched his feet break water, kept his legs straight, and concentrated on his arm pull. The line of red and yellow plastic pennants, five yards from the end, came into view.

He stroked twice more and floated in to touch the wall.

It was Thursday. He’d come to swim every night that week, the third week in a row. Each of those evenings he’d been surprised to find himself there and on time.

On the first night, after barely finishing a ten-lap set (he’d almost walked the last yards), he’d been leaning against the wall, stomach churning, gasping, when the swimmer in the next lane, a bearded young man, also resting, looked over, nodded cheerfully, and said, “It feels good though, doesn’t it?”

“Feels awful,” John had said. He’d turned and folded his arms on the edge of the pool and put his head down on them. “Maybe it will get better. It’s been fifteen years since I did any real swimming.”

The young man, who was tilting his head to one side and wiggling a finger in his ear, said, “Oh yeah? What were you doing?”

John reached behind the starting block and found his goggles. It was closer to twenty years since he’d swum competitively. Goggles were one change in that time, a sensible one, but he wasn’t comfortable with them yet. The strap was always caught and pulling in his hair. Water seeped in under the lenses unless he pressed them down hard, and then they sealed so tight he felt fish-eyed. The bubbled lenses were green. He hated the way they must look on him.

The alternative, however, as he’d learned the first few nights, was stinging eyes that remained a rabbity pink the next day, blurred vision underwater, and trouble with the lights when he drove home, although that part was beautiful: Colored nimbuses surrounded the lights, blue at center, radiating out to green and red, with lines, spoked, like the lines of a pupil.

He couldn’t remember that his eyes had ever burned like that before, and he’d been in the water two to three hours a day, then. He assumed they were using more or harsher chemicals.

Always get the last word.

Updates and special offers straight to your inbox.

Keep up with the latest from ZYZZYVA by subscribing to our newsletter.

By subscribing, you agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge that your information will be used as described in our Privacy Notice.

It was nearly dark. The line of the fire, two-thirds of the way up the hill now, was getting clearer. The bulldozer had stopped for the moment and he could hear a light, rolling crackle of the burning grasses and shrubs. The firemen were only visible when a flame spurted near them.

John adjusted his goggles and pushed off from the side. After a fast freestyle set, ten laps, he switched to breaststroke. It was a graceful stroke and established a rhythm. When he switched back to freestyle again, this rhythm would remain. His stroke would be even, his kick measured. These smooth, meditative laps had become the pursuit of the evening.

He’d started working out for other reasons.

He’d wanted to redistribute a few pounds, and an article on quitting cigarettes had suggested that the discipline of exercise would ease the trauma. In the first few nights he’d had to concentrate on keeping himself afloat and counting laps. Once he had gained some endurance, the laps began to slip by with less effort and he regarded the sessions differently, as a time in his day to think or dream.

John watched his arms pulling through, the air bubbles streaming back through his fingers. His stroke and kick were steady, his breathing economical. The laps began to slide by.

A letter had come from his mother. He had mentioned, in his own letter, that he was swimming regularly. A clipping accompanied her letter. It wasn’t really a clipping. It was a Xerox copy of a clipping, of a year-old story printed in his hometown newspaper. The story was about a summer league swim meet. Circled was a paragraph concerned with one race, the boy’s eleven-to-twelve-year-old, fifty-meter backstroke. The race had been won by a boy named Jerry Armendariz, in a new Southern Section record time. The sportswriter noted that it had been the oldest surviving record in the section, set eighteen years before, by local swimmer John Goodwin. He’d smiled, reading it, thinking about how odd it was to be described as a “local swimmer.” The clipping brought back a lot. He’d broken the old record by nearly two seconds, an impressive margin in a sport that recorded times by the hundredth part of a second. It had impressed a lot of people, including the sportswriter who had been there that night and who had devoted half a page to John.

He remembered the night in fragments—smells, sensations, visions—that surfaced easily and always with pleasure.

Verdugo Pool looked like an aqua keyhole from above, a long rectangle with two half-circle shallow areas at one end. The long building housing the office and locker rooms looked like a foreign legion desert fort—adobe-colored, with turrets and a notched roofline. There was a picnic area beyond one of the pool’s side fences, wooden tables under an arbor. His family had a light dinner there, cold chicken and salad, before the meet. The arbor was roofed with dry palm fronds that rustled, always, and clattered in a wind.

It was late August, the kind of night that makes tourists move to Southern California. The air was fresh, carrying the dusty fragrance of the manzanita down from the hillside and the light, sweet scent of the pittosporum hedge surrounding the pool.

He remembered sitting on the sand-colored deck with his team, all of them sitting on neatly laid out towels as their coach called their names and told them their events.

He could not remember the start of his race, or the other swimmers. What came back was the feel of his body in the water. One arm lifted as the other descended and his stroke was so strong that he felt he was riding up, almost out of the water. He felt the water surge over his body at each pull, like a current or electrical field; he felt the hairs moving on his arms and legs. He remembered touching the wall, fingers stretched perfectly at the end of a stroke and then there was a beginning glow, as the other swimmers churned in and he finally sensed how far ahead of them he had been.

He was sitting with his family in the top row of the bleachers when the record was announced over the loudspeaker. The time drew whistles and gasps. His mother hugged him, and his father and sisters applauded. The applause descended the bleachers. People in the bottom rows stood up and turned toward him. He sat up straighter, beneath the blanket wrapped around him, smiled, and nodded shyly.

It was his last record. The next year, in May, just before the outdoor season, he broke his collarbone, landing wrong in the first attempt at a pole vault.

When he returned to practice, he found his stroke had changed. He wallowed. His coach explained that a collarbone or shoulder injury would do that; he would have to alter his stroke.

At the end of that summer, a coach who had once headed the team at a rival YMCA phoned to invite John to join an AAU program. He was limiting the team to ten swimmers. “You’ll be groomed,” he said, “for the Olympics.”

John told him about the shoulder and explained that he’d hardly swum at all that year. There was a silence. Finally the man said, “Then you’ve definitely retired.” John said, “What?” His older sister, who had answered the phone and remained, looked at him questioningly. The coach repeated his statement and John answered, “Yes,” in a voice that made his sister look at him again. “Yes. I guess I am.”

In the dark, the bulldozer gave a rattling bellow, idled down, then roared again. It sounded like it was straining against something so heavy it had to rest between shoves.

John pushed off, beginning his forty-first lap. He sprinted the first lap, concentrating on the line at the bottom of the pool and then the black cross on the side that helped him gauge the turn. Two or three more laps and he would settle into a more reflective pace.

He’d taken the clipping to work and left it in his top desk drawer. He finally covered it with a sheet of paper.

No one had caught him reading it, but he was embarrassed by his fascination. At one time his name had appeared in newspapers regularly and he hadn’t thought anything about it. What worried him about his fascination with the article was the possibility that it might be the last time his name would appear in print except the public notices section of the classifieds.

It had appeared there, twice that year and would be appearing again, in that curious column of ads that began: No longer responsible for any debts but my own.

He had been amazed at the number of people he knew who read that section of the paper. A few brought it up, apologized, commiserated. There were more who hadn’t said anything; he recorded the speculative looks, and noted those who no longer asked after his wife.

The friends who had talked to him seemed shaken, and he could understand it. The marriage had always appeared solid. One friend, who had expected his own marriage would come apart long before theirs, told him: “You and Ellen got along. I never saw you guys fight. Not once.” They had, of course, but never in public and even privately their fights had consisted more of silences than of screaming.

Right to the end it was amazing how considerate they were of each other.

He had been calm that last day. Ellen had gone up the street, to wait at a neighbor’s house. The boys sat solemnly on the couch, hands carefully clasped in their laps. Todd, seven years old, had looked closely at his brother to see how he should fold his hands. Every time J.J. shifted, Todd leaned forward to look at him. At first they sat upright, fingers laced, then, as they slumped, their hands went between their thighs and they pressed their legs together.

John, sitting across from them, watched their faces. He felt they knew what was coming. They seemed braced. He told them he and their mother were separating and their small, formal faces relaxed. They knew that word, “separating.” More than half their classmates at Horace Mann Elementary were children of what the school referred to as single-parent families.

The boys only cried once, when he mentioned moving and as soon as they understood they weren’t moving, and that John wasn’t taking either of the dogs with him, it was all right. They asked exactly what John was taking with him—what furniture, which car and he began to realize that they had clear opinions of what was his, what was Ellen’s, and what was theirs.

When he kissed them goodbye, he told them they would see him that weekend. He gave them both small cards with his new phone number, explaining that they should call any time, even if they only wanted to say goodnight.

He stood on the porch and watched them walk down the street to the neighbors. Todd kept looking at his card. J.J. took his hand as they crossed the street. Todd looked up at him with mild curiosity, when his hands were taken.

The fire on the hill was out. The bulldozer had completed the cut and chugged back over the ridge to its trailer. The truck and trailer had ground away moments before. Looking across the mist rising from the pool, John could see the firemen walking back down the black hill. The moon was in front of them, low and bright. He could see them clearly, shovels over their shoulders and they walked, well apart, looking down. At the bottom they moved together and clumped around the pickup truck. The shovels clattered into the bed. One of them laughed and cigarettes were lit.

He floated on his back, resting. He had finished the eighty laps with a burst. His legs sank and he stood. He raised his goggles and took them off, twisting his head to free the strap. Tossing the goggles onto the deck, he turned, rubbing his eyes, and looked at the clock. He was almost ten minutes ahead of his regular schedule.

John felt his calves and rolled his shoulders. Everything was loose, not even the beginnings of a cramp, and he felt strong. He decided to swim another set, ten more laps.

The surface of the pool was glassy. Steam rose, collected and drifted a foot above the surface. All the other swimmers were gone. The calm shining corridor of water stretched ahead of him between the lane ropes. He pinched his nostrils, blew out, and sniffed. The smell of smoke and bleach was almost heady.

John pushed off. He started slowly, breaststroke. Ninety laps would be a new record. The water rippled away from him, small roiling furrows from each stroke and kick, that smoothed before even reaching another lane. The pool had good gutters. He thought about Ellen on the last day. She had been so calm, so reasonable. It was almost insulting.

Without goggles, the water blurred around him. He was swimming a lap underwater—“lungbusters,” his coach used to call them—to see if he could still do it. He strained and yet it was so quiet and the lights were so odd—three Plasticine bubbles on each side radiating yellow wavering rays and halos, like streetlamps on a submarine alley. He almost came up short. The last few strokes were on the surface and frantic. When he touched the wall, his head whipped back and he gasped.

He had nearly blacked out during those last few strokes. The water was blurred, the light wavering, but what he saw in those last strokes was sharp-edged and clear. And familiar. He had seen both visions enough times, awake and dreaming that much of the strangeness was gone from them: Himself at twelve on that August night, dripping, his hair wild, on the top step of the award stand; and then, like a hand shoved into his face and pulled back, so it came into focus moving away, Ellen’s mask. It was her face at the moment he’d told her he was leaving, the one time her calm had broken.

Until that moment, Ellen’s round, freckled, pretty face had only been bleak. When he said the words, she gasped. Her face ran together and then cracked; he’d thought about it a lot and that was what happened, her face cracked, fracturing in successive waves—astonishment, realization, certainty, and then absolute terror. The look of fear split it open.

He had never seen fear like that in another person. Some part of him shriveled enough to let him register it almost dispassionately; it was like squinting when the light is too strong. It was the face in dreams and movies that smacks against the porthole or windshield, holds for an instant, then slips, drops away. Except that it remains.

Five more laps. Still gasping, swimming on the surface with his head up, he continued. At the end of the lap he was in stroke again. He swam one more lap of breaststroke, gathering strength and rhythm, feeling it build as he humped toward the wall.

He turned so fast he was kicking into his wake. His first six strokes were without breath and by the sixth, as he turned to breathe under his arm, he felt he was almost above water. It was so smooth. His arms drove and he pulled through and he was riding his kick.

His body felt smooth, stretched to a fine tension, and he was beyond thought, no longer counting laps or planning the approach on turns. Blurring. Feeling the water rush over him. Pushing off the wall before he realized that he’d whipped down for the turn. The water surged through his hair.

On the last lap he began to tire but it was all right. He shortened his stroke, willed his kick faster, and crashed through the water. All rhythm was gone but he moved, chopping, rolling, to the wall. His hand smashed against the gutter and he sank.

Hollowing his body, extending his arms and legs, he floated upward. He felt like an egg; his arms and legs felt tiny.

He floated face down, his eyes closed, rocking gently in the remains of his wake. There was a light, pleasurable pressure at the back of his skull. Then his hand began to ache.

He rolled over, his breath bubbling out, and wheezed and gasped as he tried to draw air. He wasn’t just tired; he was weak. When he tried to stand he was unable. He could hear and feel his heart thud on every breath; in and out, with a small catch each time. He massaged his hand.

The moon was directly overhead. He had to tip back to see it. The moon bobbed as he slowly stirred his arms and legs until he was floating easily on the surface. His breathing became more regular. The moon seemed to recede and sharpen in focus.

John decided he was feeling good—absolutely bone tired and unstrung—loose, but good. Everything was numb but his hand.

Lou Mathews (a.k.a. Dale Davis) is the author of the novels L.A. Breakdown, a Los Angeles Times Best Book, and Shaky Town, long-listed for the 2022 Tournament of Books, both from Tiger Van Books. He has received a Pushcart Prize, a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and California Arts Commission and NEA Fellowships in Fiction. The character of Dale Davis appears in “Oscar,” Mathews’s story in Issue 127.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Captcha loading...