Off The Deep End

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith


I’ve been swimming recently; getting up early and going to the community center to swim. The pool is a big one with a water slide for adults and a tiny little water slide for kids, and there is a platform in the shallow area where there are pipes and valves and fountains, and kids like to play in that portion of the water.

Off to one end, there is something they call the lazy river, a four-foot deep concrete channel that curves around like a smooth bend carved by a less-than-widely-meandering branch of the Mississippi, only without the sediments. The water in the lazy river curves around and then eventually rejoins the rest of the pool without fanfare or fuss.

The pool opens at six. I’ve been trying to get there when they open but almost always fail; I almost always get there about twenty after six, which is where the problem begins. There are three lanes in the lap swim area. The lap swim area is a big long rectangle, five feet deep, with two float-infested blue and white nylon ropes dividing it into three lanes.

I guess I was lucky the first few days. The first few times I swam, there was always an open lane all ready and waiting for me to use. I just dropped into the water and started thrashing; you see, the thing is, I don’t swim very well, and that’s what really started the Richmond Heights Poolside Emergency.

I walked out to the pool area, still leaving little foot-shaped puddles on the concrete because of my visit to the showers. I was wearing my X-Men III swimming trunks, which my wife says makes me look silly. She says they’re made for someone much younger, maybe someone in his forties.

I like them, however. They are dark blue and on the front, off to the side a little, they have a picture of Wolverine with his claws extended, blood dripping off the curved blades. That’s my favorite part: Wolverine with his claws extended. If the swimming trunk manufacturer had only stopped at that I’d have been happy... only... on the back of the dark blue trunks, there is also a picture of Cyclops; the X-man who always wears dark glasses and can shoot fire out of his eyes if he takes off his protective eyewear. Unfortunately for my trunks, the maker has Cyclops standing there with his glasses off and fire is shooting out of his eyes. It looks like he’s baking ham or igniting some escaping gas.

Still, overall I like my attire and often get comments from six-year old boys wanting to know where my swim trunks were purchased. I walk over to the lap swim area and can see I’ll have to wait a little before I get in the pool; there are already five people in the pool.

I know what you’re thinking, five people and three lanes? How does that work? The lanes are big enough for two swimmers; or at least in many instances, two people end up sharing a lane. If you can swim by putting your arm in the water and actually swim, you can easily share a lane with another swimmer. I don’t swim like that.

I never learned to swim like a normal person; my legs kick out to the sides like Bruce Lee when he’s surrounded and my arms oar like an old Roman galley. Like there are slaves chained up inside my ribcage and two are on each side of my body, hiding in my lung cavities perhaps, and they have ahold of the handle portion of my skinny rigid arms and they are rowing me through the water, all the while hoping they can crash my head into an enemy vessel. That’s how I swim. That’s the best I can do.

So on this particular morning I could see immediately I was going to have to wait a while before getting in the water. Already there were five people in the water. Two in the lane by the window. Two in the lane next to that. And one woman in the far lane kicking around at sixty-five miles an hour in fins and webbed gloves.

So I waited. I was trying to get a lane to myself so I was hoping the woman in fins would leave first. That didn’t happen. Two people left and still I couldn’t get in. Now there were three people in three lanes. One man actually stopped and asked if I wanted to share his lane. I told him I couldn’t. I waited. I’d been waiting twenty more minutes when the woman finally got out.

I lowered myself into the water. I started moving forward. The lifeguard stood up on the little ledge of his elevated chair and almost jumped for the water but then he noticed I was making some headway, limping away from shore like a ship bound to sink but perhaps able to make it to international waters, well outside the lifeguard’s jurisdiction.

I made it to the far side and made it back and started out again and was halfway between Scylla and Charybdis when something hit me. I felt a collision on the starboard helm and something scraped the barnacles all up my left leg and then a bald torpedo entered my swim trunks and thankfully failed to explode.

I tried to get out of the way but I was the iceberg and wasn’t capable of maneuvers. I was pushing with my hands like Marilyn Monroe trying to hold her skirt down at the subway and finally I felt a little parting of the waves. Gasping and spitting water I stood. The pool in that area is five feet deep; my head was out of the water. I was face to face with a diminutive Hal Holbrook.

“Sorry,” Hal said.

“What the hell,” says I.

“I didn’t realize how slow you were going.”

“I’m trying to swim here,” I said.

Hal Holbrook was bobbing in the water. I realized he was elderly and short. My tone changed. I was almost harsh. “If you don’t mind, I swim much better if people don’t have their heads jammed up in my swim trunks.”

“Believe me, that wasn’t something I had scheduled,” he said.

I waited, expecting him to turn around and swim away. I crossed my arms for effect, but they were below the waterline and went unnoticed.

“You’ll have to stay to your side,” he said, as he edged past me and started swimming again.

“I was here first,” I said and started off in the other direction. Had the pool been infinite we’d have been finished with our dispute.

The pool wasn’t infinite.

We collided again, this time head on, just like the Stockholm struck the Andrea Doria. “Will you need us to stand by and take survivors?” I said. I was listing badly to port but felt the pumps could handle the intake. I could feel all the baggage below decks shifting.

I knew I had nearly twice his tonnage and was newer construction, but sometimes the old methods will surprise you: try running an old car into something made of plastic and double-sided adhesive, if you see what I mean. Still, I was expecting him to be ‘stove in’ or at least have some ‘shivered timbers’, but he was like the Nautilus from the movie, 20,000 Leagues. He struck me hard and just kept going. I watched as he sped off almost completely submerged.

I limped over to the end of the pool. I waited for him. He stopped because I was standing in his way.

“I waited quite a while before getting into the water. I don’t think it’s fair you just show up and expect to jump right in.”

“These lanes can hold two people,” he said.

“Not the way I swim.”

“Just stay to one side,” he said.

“Look, I don’t want to get mean about this, but I waited a long time till I could have a lane to myself. You can go sit down till I’m through.”

“If we’re going to get ‘mean’ with each other, maybe I should go get my Grandson. He’s upstairs lifting weights. He just got back from Falluja.”

I noticed all the other swimmers weren’t moving in the water anymore; they were all standing and watching me yell at the octogenarian. I looked at them slowly, one at a time. Each of them shook their heads at me; they may have had their arms folded too, I couldn’t tell.

When I turned back to the old guy I could see he was waving his arm at someone. I looked up at the windows, looking up at the window that held the old guy’s attention. The weight room at Richmond Heights Rec Center looks down on the pool.

Up in the window was a creature of war. It was lifting weights. Six discs on the bar, each as big around as the lid of a trash can and as thick as a Premium Quality Serta mattress. In an impossible display of strength and co-ordination the monster holding the barbell took one hand off the steel horizon and with all that iron still elevated the man from Falluja waved to his Grandfather. The Grandfather beckoned with his hands. The Grandson disappeared from the window. I figured I had three minutes to live.

A number of images flashed through my head. I saw Gene Hackman on the barroom floor and Clint Eastwood aiming a gun at him. “I don’t deserve this.” Gene Hackman says. “Deserving has nothing to do with it,” Clint answers.

And then lines from Julius Caesar popped in my head. Marc Antony saying, “I would rather wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you, rather than stir up trouble for the conspirators,” and the line “...how only yesterday, the word of Caesar might have stood against the world.”

I didn’t know if I had a right to have my own lane. All the other people were sharing lanes. Was I being fair? I thought I was being fair. What hope was there for the world if something this simple was uncertain? Should I have my own lane... or not? My friends say I should have claimed I had a swimming disability. They said that would be a way to get my own lane. I knew that would be wrong but I still didn’t know what was right.

Unbidden, other deep moral questions jumped into my head. Like: shouldn’t we just leave Britney Spears alone and let her raise her child and hope for the best? Do the tabloid papers have a right to give advice on rearing children when they haven’t lifted a finger to help raise all the children they’ve fathered:

And more questions:

I emptied my lungs and dove for the bottom. If I could stay perfectly still. If I could remain on the bottom until they tired of waiting for me; then I’d survive. Like in the movie Das Boot, the movie about the WWII German submarine; if I could just stay on the bottom forever, then my worries would be over.

Now it was just a question of willpower.


Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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