The Garfield Pool at 26th and Harrison; I slip my six bucks through the little hole in the cage. Nobody’s around so I ring the little bell for service. I’m not much of a bell ringer. It feels aggressive but some mornings I stand here a while. So I ping the bell once with a knuckle. The guy comes out.
“It’s 8:45,” he says.
“Lap swim closes at 9 on Wednesdays.”
“Shit, thought it was 9:30.”
It’s the older guy who’s bald, not the older guy with the mop of hair, and he’s got a whistle around his neck.
“You want to swim anyway?”
“I would, yes.”
He pushes my six bucks back through the hole.
“Keep that. Go take a swim.”
Maybe it is the welcome overcastness of this morning. I’ve been waiting so long for it to be gray. But it occurs to me as I do the few laps I’ve got time to do that if there’s such a thing as pure beauty in this world (I’m not convinced, but lets just say) then it was present in the bald old guy’s: “Keep that. Go take a swim”.
The Garfield Pool is named, apparently, for President James Garfield. No change is given. Credit card, forget it. It’s been exact change at the Garfield Pool since Garfield was shot in 1881. So many mornings I’ve found myself scrambling to come up with 6 dollars cash—in singles, quarters, nickels—that I can’t emphasize enough how precious those 6 bucks are.
I’ve got only 8 or so minutes to swim, but it’s a free 8 minutes, a gorgeous thing in itself—but combine this with “Keep that. Go take a swim” and I’m swimming in a kind of ecstasy.
I’m not an especially good swimmer. I avoid the fast lane and the pricks in Speedos. (The rest of us can’t swim the butterfly, but why lord it over us and hog the lane?) So I’m bumbling along in the medium fast lane thinking, “Keep that,” “Keep that,” and I get stuck on this idea of pure beauty existing or not existing in the world and this reminds me of a story because everything that happens to me reminds me, one way or another, of a story, in this case, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” that famous wallop of a story about a book-hating book critic who gets plugged in the head during a bank robbery. As the bullet travels through his brain, the critic, in the nanoseconds he’s got left, has a vision of possibly the single time in his life when he just appreciated something for what it was. Not how it could be made better if some hack had the skills. For what it was, period. As a kid playing baseball, one of the other boys, says, if I remember right, “Shortstop’s the best position they is”—and this sentence, in particular two words “they is” have remained lodged in the critic’s synapses. Two imperfect words and yet they’re human, and what this guy has been lacking for a long time now is any humanness whatsoever. And the book critic dies with an image so moving his impermeable heart nearly bursts.
In the time I’ve got left in the pool, I start thinking of stories that have threatened to explode my own heart. My father died this past year and I remain baffled and grief struck, but I’ve yet to drop a single tear.
Instead, I tear up over people who never existed.
I summon another story, this one by Richard Bausch. I can’t remember the name of it but as I swim my final lap I conjure up a grandfather watching his granddaughter jump rope in the morning rain. The granddaughter is heavy and she’s been trying to lose weight to get ready for a gymnastics show where she must haul herself over a vaulting horse. As much as she practices, she can’t do it. And as much as she diets, she can’t lose weight. (This is America for you. Our 5th graders diet.) And the day of the show is approaching. She’s the only kid in her grade who can’t get over the vaulting horse. And I’m swimming and I’m remembering being alone in my apartment and reading this story. My daughter wasn’t born yet but she was on the way (I’d seen her on a computer screen) and so this must have had something to do with it. I must have been intuiting the helplessness of fatherhood. I was so struck by this grandfather’s love for his chubby granddaughter that I basically fell apart. I had to lie down on the floor and just breathe. As I’m swimming I can’t remember whether the daughter made it over the vaulting horse or not. I’m not sure it matters. All I’ve got to go on is this one scene where this grandfather watches his granddaughter jump rope in the rain, or try to jump rope because she’s not so good at it—and then the whistle blows—“Everybody Out!” and so I thank the old guy, get dressed, walk the two blocks home, and find the Bausch collection buried under a pile of books. In the park across the street, I re-read the story.
It’s called, “What Feels Like the World.” Not a great title and yet when I finish it again, I understand why Bausch called it this because the story, weirdly, does feel like the world. What I mean is the story is about what it is like to be alive and one way it is like to be alive is to stand by impotent, unable to protect the people we love from all the casual cruelties life offers. (Gym class being only one on a long list.) In this story, standing by is made a lot harder to take by the fact that the girl, Brenda, has recently lost her mother in a car accident and is now being raised by her widowed grandfather, a baffled man if there ever was one. The grandfather is retired but he thinks that if gives the appearance of working every day, Brenda’s home life will feel more stable. Each day, after he drops her off at school, the man pretends to be at a bank. As he putters around his house all day, he can’t clean it for fear that Brenda will figure out he no longer has a job.
In my memory of the first time I read the story I remember feeling intensely sorry for the little girl. Now, here in the park, I don’t feel sorry for her at all. The kid’s going to be all right. In spite of all the humiliations she will suffer at the hands of gym teachers who will never know what it’s like practice and practice and practice and still not be able to do something, she’s going to be all right. Brenda’s tough, a battler. It’s the grandfather I worry over now. He’s only in his sixties, but he won’t be around forever, and he’s got to live for the rest of his life with the fact—as do we all—that Brenda—all our Brendas, all our daughters, all our sons—at some point will have to face this world without us.
How can I defend my own kid from people who might force her to do gymnastics if she doesn’t want to (and this includes me)? But like I say, the kid is stronger. Maybe the kids will always be stronger. It’s us—the imposters masquerading as protectors—who are unimaginably weak.
For a long time I thought reading would somehow make me a better writer. So I’d read in order to write. I’d justify the hours I spent with my feet up and call reading “my work.” Now I see how stupid this is. All the glorious Chekhov in thirteen volumes won’t help anybody write a sentence that truly breathes. That comes from somewhere else, somewhere out in the world, where mothers die in car accidents and daughters hide the pain. And yet I have come to the conclusion that reading keeps me alive, period. I wake to read and sleep so I can get up in the morning and read some more. I haven’t done much justice to “What Feels Like the World.” There’s so much more to say about how certain stories burrow into your brain and some non-existent people become ours for good. I carry Brenda and her grandfather around the way I do my own daughter. My fictional people make my connection with my flesh and blood seem all the more fragile.
Let me say this though: Richard Bausch can take your head off with a plain sentence. He’s direct, no frills, no pirouettes. A writer who says what he means and not a word more. Keep that. Go take a swim.
How much she reminds him of her mother. There’s a certain mobility in her face, a certain willingness to assert herself in the smallest gesture of the eyes and mouth. She has her mother’s green eyes, and now he tells her this. He’s decided to try this. He’s standing, quite shy, in her doorway, feeling like an intruder. She’s sitting on the floor, one leg outstretched, the other bent at the knee. She tries to touch her forehead to the knee of the outstretched leg, straining, and he looks away.
I sit in Precita Park at the base of Bernal Hill and mourn a grandfather who’s got years to live. I root for a motherless girl to get over a leather hump. I think of my father and how in the weeks before he died he was so skinny. He was so skinny that when I helped him out of bed to use the bathroom I thought he’d be light but he wasn’t. He wasn’t light at all. The man was all bones, but bones get heavy. And I watch, sitting here motionless, what feels like the world – watch some people walk their dogs, others scurry late to work, unlock their cars with little remote controls. Bleep. Bleep, Bleep. At the corner of Precita and Harrison a van pauses at the stop sign. It’s filled with cleaning women. All the van’s windows are closed. The women are all staring straight ahead. They look exhausted already. It’s only 10 a.m. And the mops standing up and pressed against the back window are like the other tired heads, only smaller.