The Roessler Pool advertised its swimming lessons in local news rags or in the back pages of amateur theater programs. These advertisements, no bigger than two postage stamps, were always the same: a black cartoon cat hung midair over a cartoon lake, fur electric with terror, eyes popped out of his skull. “We specialize in scaredy cats of all ages,” read the copy. In miniscule print underneath, “WWII Veterans Swim Free.” No address, just a phone number to call. I’d found this same advertisement in the playbills handed out at the seasonal concerts staged at my sister’s church.
One morning I said some very cruel things to my sister. While she lay weeping and quivering on her kitchen floor, I went into her husband’s study, phoned the Roessler Pool and signed up for my pro-bono lessons.
The woman on the other end was Helen. She asked my age—twenty-eight—and put me down for Can’t-Swim-At-All Group B, Wednesday mornings at 7:00am. She said I’d already missed a session, but would catch up, as the second class was mostly review.
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Your name is Dave.”
“David,” I said.
“Dave,” she said. “Ha! That’s funny.”
As it turned out, the Roessler Pool was way the hell down in Palos Verdes—foggy town without streetlights—a thirty-four-mile trek from where I lived at my sister’s place on Coldwater Canyon. The Pool was quite a place, though, the whole facility built literally into a cliff, its foundational pilings sunk into the bedrock of the mighty Pacific itself. From the dark parking lot that served its patrons, the Roessler Pool was invisible. No sign marked the place; no lamp heralded the point of entry. I found it by the sheer serendipity of following another swimmer’s taillights. He parked and I parked in front of a high, ivy-ridden fence, and as the sun rose behind us, I watched this other man get out of his car and trot across the asphalt to a place in the fence where there was a hidden gate. He felt around for the latch, then opened the leafy aperture and disappeared behind it.
I sat trembling in my car for a minute more, finishing a cigarette, suppressing a nauseating impetus to flee.
I was a person who, by his nature, sank.
My father had tried to teach me to swim, and not in the cruel survivalist manner of the men of his generation, either. He waded into pools with me, held me up with his large hands, encouraged me to move my limbs, reminded me that even dogs could swim. I gagged, coughed, vomited, cried. The water entered my head and swirled in a cold ribbon down my spine. Again and again my father yanked me up and pounded on my back, his own face wet and panicked. Finally, when I was about ten, my mother—watching this exercise for the umpteenth time—charged into the pool fully clothed and rescued me. She asked God to forgive my father’s stupidity. That was the end of that.
Whatever impulse drove me to sign up for swimming lessons, then, was closer to irony than to hope, and when I emerged from the pool house and saw, for the first time, the Roessler Pool and felt the powerful threat of the ocean roaring just below its deck and heard the screeching of the gulls overhead, I knew for certain that I would not do it, that I would not enter that cold blue shimmer for any reason or on anybody’s account.
Four other men were assembled on a bench beside the pool. One of them, a tall fellow with a toothy smile, came over and extended a hand: “How goes it? Cold enough for you?” I shook his hand and my fate was sealed. Coward to the marrow, I would get into the pool, wouldn’t I? He led me forward to meet the others—an arthritic who seemed unable to move his neck; a young pimply kid; and a swarthy, curly-haired man who looked about my age. All of them eyed me, nodding, acknowledging the frigid air. “Holy crap it’s really freezing,” said the toothy guy.
A woman emerged from the pool house and took command of us. “Might as well get wet, gentlemen.” She was a blunt, almost totally cylindrical person in her early fifties with salt-and-pepper hair and a rapid, surefooted gait. Her skin was tanned, but not so darkly that you couldn’t see knotted purple veins at the backs of her knees. She wore a white terry bathing suit cover—a sleeveless shift that zippered up the front—and a whistle around her neck, like a coach. It was seven o’clock sharp.
I folded my towel into a tight square and left it on the bench. Moving toward the water, I felt the considerable weight of my skeleton.
“Jump in quick,” said the woman. She had an armload of wooden kickboards. “Where’s the new fellow?”
I raised my hand, then sat myself on the edge of the pool with the others. In the water my feet took on the light green tint of corpse flesh.
“Dave, Dave, Dave, and Dave—meet Dave,” she said, pointing to me. She put down her kickboards and crouched beside me. “I’m Helen,” she said.
“Another Dave? You gotta be kidding me,” said the swarthy man, Dave, wincing, lowering his frozen ass into the drink.
“My name is Eugene,” said the arthritic man, climbing down the metal ladder. His lips were purple. “But I’ve always gone by Dave.”
The pimply kid looked down into the pool for some suspenseful seconds before letting himself drop into it. He turned to the wall and hung on.
Helen strung a rope across the pool. “We’re going to keep to the shallow end again today, gentlemen. Pay attention, and don’t be afraid to stop me and ask questions.”
Toothy Dave, the glad-hander, leaped feet-first into the water with a rude splash. “Aw fuck,” he said, laughing.
I was the last. I slid myself in, gonads gripped in an icy fist.
Arthritic Dave elbowed me: “Who brought the schnapps, huh?” His bathing trunks, billowing around him, hung onto a square margin of hips under his belly. His chest was shot with red age spots.
“Review!” yelled Helen. She distributed the kickboards. “What’s the number one rule about breathing underwater?”
Toothy Dave raised his hand. “Don’t do it!” he shouted.
“That’s right, gentlemen. Very important. You do not have gills.”
The lesson was forty-five minutes of kicking and paddling, chins eked above the water. Afterward I felt warm and thirsty. The other Daves hurried to the pool house where they had lockers full of soap and clean clothes, but it had not occurred to me that life would continue post-swimming-lesson, and so I clambered back up to my sister’s car wrapped in my towel, trunks dripping.
Sissy’s car was a 1951 Nash Airflyte Rambler Convertible Landau with Ultradrive, a Sky-Lounge Safety interior, Weather-Eye, radio and heat. Custard yellow, it was brand new last year. Her husband drove a Cadillac, a car he kept all to himself. Sissy permitted me to drive the Rambler before noon, because she rarely left the house until lunchtime, and because she believed it was difficult for a man to get dangerously drunk in the AM. I appreciated the Rambler—a splendid thrumming creature. Driving home, I did what I could to keep the seats dry.
My sister’s place, located near Coldwater’s apogee in the Santa Monica Mountains, was a big palooza, fake French revival behind a wrought iron gate. Its long brick driveway plunged downhill along the slope of the property to the garage. Behind this: a broad lawn and an elaborate terraced garden complete with lanai, sun patio, brick barbecue, and gardener’s cottage.
When I got home Sho, the gardener, was scouring the lawn. He crouched on his knees and elbows so he could really examine the leaves of grass—mind-numbing work, but the lawn was a wonder, a Persian carpet of emerald silk. When you walked across it, it buoyed your feet, propelled you on your way. An amazing, vivid, flawless lawn. Nothing irked me more than watching my fat sister, her fat husband and her fat friends walking across Sho’s lawn in their fat goddamn shoes.
Sho lived somewhere near Bundy and Sawtelle, so my sister housed me, as she had for the past four years, in the gardener’s cottage. I figured that, like the shovels and rakes hooked to the side of my abode, I was at Sho’s disposal.
On the way to my quarters, I waved at the master. “Hello old man,” I said. Sho didn’t acknowledge me, such was his concentration. I went into the cottage, showered, dressed, drank a Coca-Cola, and then, in my bare feet, I headed out to help scour the lawn.
“Find these,” said Sho, holding up a tiny weed that looked just like grass. He came over and put the thing in my hand. “You can’t find it by seeing,” he said. He closed his eyes, meaning I should close mine, and then he passed his palms over a patch of lawn, grabbed my hand and showed me where. I felt a light scratch on the tip of my middle finger. “There,” said Sho. He pointed to the weed and let me pull it out. “Today we work like Helen Keller,” he said.
“Affirmative,” I said.
“Good,” said Sho.
He didn’t smile. He almost never did. In the garden he was all business and nothing but. Once upon a time, Sho was an accountant. He and his wife had had a nice place out in Pasadena, but like all professional Japanese in California, he had been transformed, by the black magic of war, into a man who tended gardens.
I determined I would not go to any more swimming lessons. To celebrate this decision, I hiked down Coldwater and caught a bus to The Observatory, a bar I liked on Sunset. Hollywood at happy hour was always a jolt, even on a Wednesday night: the gleaming cars packed nose-to-tailpipe against the curb, the pop tops and sharky fins, the Diamond Deluxe headlights for unsurpassed night vision. And out of the bellies of these, the men from the office, the big tippers in gabardine and Hathaway, Silverwoods and Orbachs, their Oxfords polished this morning by the whistling negro kid—Chattenoogie Shoe Shine Boy!—their hair held down against the velocity of business dealings by a dab of the Wild Root. On the sidewalk, they saluted one another as Buster or Mack, Buddy or Pal: Whaddya know? Another goddamn beautiful day! Guys on the make had stopped off for shaves, their faces steamed to a ruddy vigor. Their girls had fluttered in from Buffums and Mays, Bullocks, and Haggarty’s, fanning themselves with gloved hands and clutch purses, gushing about how they were ready, how they had never been more ready for a cigarette and a cocktail.
The Observatory was an astronomical joint: the walls and the ceiling rigged to resemble a starry night, small points of light beaming from behind a front of black velvet. The napkins read, “What’s your sign?” and there was a round astrological chart on the wall to help you answer the question. On Friday and Saturday nights, a couple of waitresses dressed up in green hats topped by radio antennae. That was a lark. Oscar, the barkeep and sole proprietor, was by-and-large a serious fellow, serious about his bar, serious about his coin collection—we shared an interest in numismatics—and serious about astronomy. Up on the bar’s roof he kept an actual telescope, a huge thing wrapped in tarps and tied with ropes. On a clear night, at closing, if lingering customers were not too drunk, he’d take them up there and show them some heavenly bodies.
Myself, I’d never seen any.
I sat down and ordered a Gimlet. “Oscar,” I said, “I’m taking swimming lessons.”
Oscar was surprised I hadn’t learned to swim in the Army. That was a laugh. Ha! I told him half the kids who died at Normandy had drowned. I’d have been dead, too, if I’d been there.
I had another drink, another and then a beer, because I was taking it easy. A girl I knew, Rosemary, came in and we had a couple and maybe a couple more. Rosemary said she was a Pisces, loved to swim, always had, should have been born a fish or an otter or something, could hold her breath for a shockingly long time, which she did, sitting beside me, her cheeks distended, her eyes watering. I thought I could hear wind whistling in and out of her ears.
“Don’t do that,” I said. I was holding onto the back of my barstool like it was one of Helen’s kickboards. Oscar poured. The tiny lights in the Observatory’s ceiling began to dissolve in the corners of my eyes, and the ice at the bottom of my highball looked a long way down through the swirling murk. By then, Rosemary was gone, and somehow I’d cut my finger. Oscar gave me a wad of napkins and told me to squeeze.
Body and blood, I thought. Dear Jesus! My sister saw me as her mission. She was a Christian, god bless her. Our parents were dead. Sissy claimed that the last thing each one of them did on this earth was to ask her to look after me, though I was an able-bodied, grown man of twenty-five years by the time I was orphaned. Sissy took me in. Her husband argued against me. I was a pain. Plus, he wanted to raze the gardener’s cottage and build a bomb shelter. My sister’s husband was a film producer who could bring in a war picture, on time and under budget. Against all these odds, on my behalf, Sissy stood firm.
Oscar pointed out I was making a mess with my bloody napkins. “Jackass,” I said. “Show me some heavenly bodies.”
He said, “Not tonight.”
How would I get home? By cab, sure, but whose cab, and by what route? I liked to think it was the same guy every time who took me home, the one who reminded me to take off my shoes before I walked across Sho’s lawn. Somebody reminded me, because when I went on a binge I was too drunk to remind myself. I always found my shoes laid neatly beside the garage, after I woke flat-fuck-face-down on the floor of the cottage with my head full of chains, my feet stuffed in nothing but my socks. Maybe I’d lost my wallet, or my jacket, or my glasses. It was better if I’d puked on Sunset. It was better if I couldn’t remember whether or not the night had been starry and clear.
Why should a man who has lived all his life without swimming, who has survived his part in a World War without swimming, who sees no future need for swimming, who—indeed—has decided against swimming, continue to take on the challenge?
Let me go back: Sho and I were in the garden pulling weeds like Helen Keller, blind and deaf—sure—our other senses canine sharp.
“You smell clean,” said Sho. “You smell like bleach.”
“I was swimming,” I said. It had turned into the most beautiful kind of day, cool, the sky clear as washed glass. “I’m taking lessons.”
“You don’t swim?” asked Sho.
“Is there something wrong with your ears? I said I was learning.”
“That’s good,” said Sho. “A man should know how to swim.”
“Oh yes?” I said. I opened my eyes and quit weeding by Braille. “Why’s that?”
Sho stopped, too, and sat up, a touch annoyed. “For pleasure,” he said, as though that should have been as obvious to me as himself, right there next to me, sweating in his ridiculous straw hat.
Helen said we were going to learn to put our heads in the water. We were all assembled, shivering in the pool. Helen assured us that swimming was as easy as smoking. “When we inhale the air,” said Helen, “we inhale it deeply, the way a person does, getting his money out of his cigarette. And then we blow the smoke out underwater in big puffs.” She unzipped her bathing suit cover and tossed it aside, seeming not to know that it might mean something to the five men in the pool, watching her strip like that. She revealed a red bathing suit, round as an oil drum, thick straps over the arms, hardware built into the bust. Without pause, she jumped into the pool and bounced over to where we stood.
I thought I saw tears welling in the eyes of Dave, the frightened pimply kid, but I had my own problems, standing there trying to find the fortitude to pull myself out of the pool, to wave good-bye, to say, To hell with all you goddamn lunatics.
Helen positioned herself at the wall with her arms extended, her solid body suspended impossibly across the surface of the water. She kicked her legs lightly and, blowing air out through her mouth and nose, she laid her face in the pool. Bubbles boiled around her chops. After a few seconds, she raised her head for a big breath.
“Now you try it,” she said. We all held onto the wall and kicked our legs, following Helen’s lead. She put her face in the water again—but, to a man, the Daves kept their noses dry.
Helen popped up out of the water and wiped her eyes. “Come on now, gentlemen. I already know how to swim.”
She watched us put our faces in the water, one at a time and then as a group. It was unpleasant.
“Now let’s go for a swim,” said Helen. She took young Dave’s hands.
“No,” he said. “No, no.”
But Helen had him in her clutches. She towed him out into the center of the shallow end, telling him to kick, kick, kick. “Inhale!” shouted Helen, and she pulled him out long across the water. “Blow!” she yelled, and then she tugged his arms down. His head dipped under. After a brief struggle, he came up gasping and stunned.
“Somebody give this kid a cigarette,” shouted Helen, clapping her hands.
Weakly, we applauded young Dave. He waded back to our ranks, looking pale.
Next, toothy Dave: “What you don’t do for your kids,” he said. Helen yanked him away from his place at the wall.
He went down and came up in a fit of splashing.
“You’re getting the hang of it,” said Helen. It was the first time we’d heard her lie.
She took my hands.
I felt the weight of my long bones, granite beams inside my flesh compelling me to stay exactly where I was. But Helen was a regular John Henry. She heaved my impossibly dense body out into the middle of the pool. I sensed black wings flapping in my peripheral vision and then down I went—down, down, into a confusion of churning bubbles. I heard some kind of aluminum clanging, like cheap spoons hung in a tree. All at once I was up in the air again, Helen pulling me forward.
“Inhale!” She dunked me back down into the water. The cold ribbons of death snaked into my ears and nose. I tried to twist my wrists from Helen’s grip, and I stretched my neck up high.
Inhale!” shouted Helen, submerging me again. I sank fast, watched my own breath streaming out of my body. But then I calmed. Maybe I’d given up. Maybe I was just too tired of struggling and figured Helen would save me. Either way, I just went limp, and I noticed it was quiet down there, an absolute enclosure of blue peace and quiet. I glided up.
Helen and I, we had crossed the pool.
I shook the water from my head and pinched my eyes dry.
Grinning, Helen punched me in the upper arm. “Nice work, Charlie,” she said.
There were pomegranates on Sis’s trees. She wanted a bowl of them for the centerpiece on her dining room table, but otherwise, she said Sho could have them. We worked hard, thinning the Clevia, mulching the Jasmine, packing brush into canvas sacks. At lunch we broke open a couple of the big fruits. I told Sho about my new name, and I gnawed at my pomegranate without grace.
“You should be practicing your swimming,” said Sho.
“Do you know how long it takes to get to Palos Verdes?” I said.
“You have the ocean right there,” said Sho, pointing west. He spit a clot of seeds into a handkerchief.
“You’re nuts,” I said. I had pomegranate juice dripping off the point of my elbow. “I’d drown in forty seconds.”
Sho lifted a yellow membrane with his nail and unveiled a ruby trove. He said, “We used to have a swimming pool.”
I hated it when Sho talked about the past; I liked the dead to stay where they were.
“The first house,” he said. “The small house. It had a swimming pool, with little round tiles.” Sho made a hole with his thumb and forefinger, size of a dime. “But you don’t want a swimming pool,” he said.
“Financial liability,” he said, lifting his pomegranate to his teeth. He took a juicy bite and wiped his chin with his wrist. “But,” he said, chewing. He spit more seeds into his hanky. “Sometimes we used to go out there, my wife and I, on a warm night. She had one of those floating things.” Sho took off his big straw hat and dabbed at his forehead with the hem of his shirt. His hair stood up in grey bunches on top. “A life-preserver,” he said.
I didn’t want to hear any more. All stories about Sho’s wife had, necessarily, a tragic ending; she was gone, one way or another—left him, or passed away maybe; I didn’t know—and his two daughters were unmarried, working jobs that ruined their hands.
“She liked to throw ice cubes in the water, the ice cubes from her drink,” Sho said. He took another bite of his ancient fruit, as though it didn’t matter that I’d entered his thoughts and that we were having the same moonlit vision of his young wife, naked, laughing, her breasts pressed up against the front of the life preserver, her small hand digging into her glass of scotch or vodka for ice cubes and tossing them out onto the shimmering surface of the water, while Sho, King of Comedy, grabbed at them, letting them shoot out of his hands like slick fish.
A memory like that could fill a man with cataclysmic longing, the kind that snuffed out the rest of whatever life might have to offer. Why did Sho embark on these Kamikaze missions? I felt a hot impulse to say something—anything—that might get us both out of the goddamn pool.
“What happened to that house?” I asked, finally, my voice tight.
“Probably it’s still there,” said Sho. He shrugged, put on his straw hat and rubbed the tips of his fingers on his workpants. “When the girls were small my wife was afraid of a drowning. So in Pasadena we bought a house with a tennis court.”
All week I felt it coming, my sister’s concern, her deep sympathy. I saw her gazing out the kitchen window at the gardener’s cottage. I knew that she had been considering her words carefully. I imagined her on her melon-sized knees, praying for guidance, then laboring back onto her feet.
She crossed the lawn, wearing destructive shoes of navy suede.
Why knock on the door if you’re just going to let yourself in?
“How are you?” she said. Oh, the genuine concern, the peaked eyebrows. She was carrying a large basket—full, no doubt, of nutritious food.
“I’m well,” I said. I sat in the kitchenette, at a card table set with a bowl of vinegar and a container of Morton’s salt, cleaning coins.
She put her basket on top of the refrigerator and planted herself on one of the folding chairs across from mine. The vinyl upholstery hissed. “They miss you over at Bible Study,” she said, smiling at me.
“I’ll probably go back,” I lied.
Sis waited with her lips shut tight and smoothed her skirt over the tops of her bulky legs. “There’s no obligation to study the Bible,” she said. “It’s a gift and a privilege. I brought you some chicken.”
“I went a couple of times to make you happy,” I said. “I felt obligated.”
“And some olive loaf and cheese for your lunches. Obligated to me, the minister or obligated to the Lord? I’m just curious.”
I began scratching the side of my head. The itch spread down my neck into my shirt. “I feel zero obligation to the Lord,” I said.
Sis sighed. She reached over and stopped my hand from scratching. I swatted her away.
When we were kids, Sissy wanted to be a missionary. We were all very proud. At home every evening Mother and Sissy and I knelt and prayed for those who had not yet embraced their own salvation. In the mornings we prayed for ourselves, that we might walk the path of righteousness all day. We prayed at church, of course, and over our meals, and if an ambulance happened to streak by, wherever we were, we stopped and prayed hard. Mother said our family had a radio signal straight to God; if we were praying for you, He was bound to get the message.
“David,” said Sis. “I do think the Lord feels a deep obligation to you.”
I kept quiet, figuring eventually she’d leave. But my sister knew where to stick her pins.
“Mr. Ito says that you’ve been taking swimming lessons.”
“Why do you have to know everything I do?” I said. “Sho volunteered this information? Or are you paying him to spy on me?” I was up out of my chair, with nowhere to go.
“No. I asked him where he thought you might be taking the car in the middle of the night,” says Sis. She stretched her chin out and looked into the bowl on the table, at the coin submerged in its acid-sodium solution. “That’s a pretty one,” she said.
“You said I could use that car before noon. You gave me a goddamn key, and you set your goddamn rules.”
“I was just wondering where you were off to, David. What kind of coin is that? It has a bird on it.”
“It’s a phoenix, you dumb sow,” I said.
Sissy stood and blew an errant thread of blonde hair out of her face. “Well, I think it’s wonderful that you’re learning to swim. I think it’s wonderful for you.”
“Shut up,” I said. “You don’t know anything about it, so shut up.”
“I love you too, honey,” she said, and then, finally, she left.
Helen persisted in calling me Charlie.
“Rough night, Charlie?”
Truth is, I’d done nothing more scandalous than drink a few beers and lie awake worrying about whether I should or should not come to another swimming lesson. In the end, unable to make a decision and unable to sleep, I couldn’t stop myself from going. I was awake anyway, I figured, so I crossed Sho’s dewy lawn with a grocery bag full of clothes and soap, and I fired up the Rambler.
“Today we will swim the Australian Crawl,” said Helen. “It won’t be pretty right away, gentlemen, but three weeks from now you’ll feel like you’ve been doing it all your lives.” Helen gave us an on-deck demonstration. She arranged herself, belly-down on the concrete, arched like a saucer, feet fluttering, bust suspended just above terra firma. Swinging her arms in big arcs over her head, she showed us how we should breathe by turning our heads to the side. “It’s a controlled, more relaxed movement than stretching your neck up like a turkey’s.” Helen stretched her neck up like a turkey’s.
Arthritic Dave raised his hand and pointed to his petrified spine.
“Oh you,” said Helen. “I’m going to teach you the Side Stroke.” She jumped into the pool.
One by one she taught us, holding up our bodies like planks. She put a hand under my chest and another under my thigh. She said, “It’s like someone—someone great—has tapped you on the shoulder, Charlie, and you’re going to see who it is. Now, kick,” she said. “Blow.” I put my face in the water and blew; I kicked; I turned my head to see who was there. “Hallelujah!” shouted Helen, her face full of real joy. “Let’s do it again.” So I did it again.
After the lesson the Daves and I went about our business in the locker room. Toothy Dave gave young Dave some tips on fighting, touting the left hook and the element of surprise. Arthritic Dave swallowed a small swarm of pills. Over at the sinks, swarthy Dave lathered his face and tackled his unstoppable beard with a safety razor.
Young Dave practiced his moves, and seemed for the first time a little less dour. But toothy Dave turned around and snapped his towel at the boy’s knees. “Take that!” he said. The kid did not laugh.
I buttoned my pants.
“What’s your line?” Swarthy Dave asked, looking at me in the mirror, his face half shorn.
“Me?” I said. I was feeling good. “I’m an astronomer,” I said.
It was a clear, windy night.
I brought Oscar a Salzburg 3 Kreutzer dated 1691. The man was so excited he mixed me a Manhattan, on the house.
“You just carrying that goddamn thing around with you in your pocket?”
“I had it in my boot for most of the War,” I said.
Oscar laughed. The place was packed, but he got out his magnifying glass and stood staring at the coin under the bright, cash register light.
“That’s Saint Rupert on the front,” I said. “I still have to find out about the coat of arms on the back.”
“Oldest piece of the world I’ve ever held in my hand,” said Oscar. “Not counting rocks.
Motioning to one of his waitresses—come here, dollface—he ducked into his office, then returned carrying a small cellophane sleeve for my coin. He put the coin inside and sealed it for me.
“You ought to have some respect for history for chrissake,” he said. “You selling that thing?”
“Sure,” I said. “Sometime.”
“You had it appraised?”
“Well, keep me posted.” He pointed both his index fingers at me and walked away to tend his bar.
The bourbon felt warm in my throat and the glass tumbler it came in contained a thousand starry lights. I pushed the enveloped 3 Kreutzer around with my finger and thought about very little except that it might be nice to meet a woman.
And lo! A woman tapped me on the shoulder and spoke to me. I turned. This bodacious, busty brunette in red lipstick and polka dots, it seemed, had been standing behind me at the bar.
“You collect those?” she said, leaning in, pointing at my rare coin. “Where’d you get it?”
She wasn’t flirting. Her face—a round face of Midwestern geography, rolling hills of cheek and nose—showed serious interest. She squinted, trying maybe to identify the language printed on the coin, and revealed the top row of her very substantial looking teeth. Here was a carnivore if ever I saw one, a steak eater, a real survivor. I liked her at once.
“I don’t remember how I got this one,” I said.
The truth was I’d stolen it, and I could have said so. It’s no great secret. I stole a lot of things in Europe—coins mostly because I knew something about them, had been interested in them as a boy. Coins were portable and people’s personal collections were easy to find in their dressers or jewelry boxes or under their beds or stashed among their books. I picked up some nice Tiddlywinks in that war: a hefty handful of loose change from ancient Greece and Rome, more than fifty hand-struck coins from the dark ages, up through the Age of Enlightenment, and some gold coins, too—a very fine seventeenth century Seville 8 Escudos cob in near mint condition with pictures of lions and stars in the rosette. The 3 Kreutzer was the least of it. I used to tell this joke about myself, an old standard of mine, when I spoke of my participation in warfare: Killing and raping were not for me. But pillaging!
I didn’t feel like telling my joke. This woman—a girl really, with her still slightly pudgy hands—reminded me of someone important. Only later, lying belly up on Sho’s lawn, would I realize that with her Wisconsin face, her busty figure, her blunt fingers and her straightforward question she might have been Helen’s daughter. I wish, now, that I had introduced myself to her as Charlie, that I had stayed around and heard her laugh or yell “Hallelujah!” That would have been nice. Instead I stood, pocketed my coin, dropped a buck on the bar for Oscar and offered her my seat.
Oscar looked at me surprised, his best customer taking off on him so early. Well, I felt good and warm, a little bit sleepy. And I wanted to look at some stars.
When I got back to my sister’s place it wasn’t yet half-past eight—early enough, I guess, but I didn’t expect to find Sho’s truck in the driveway, himself busy tending the cactus up in the brick planter boxes behind the custom barbecue. He had a flashlight.
“Go home old man,” I called.
Sho motioned to me with his light. “Come here,” he said. “See this.”
I took off my shoes and jogged over. I climbed the patio steps, then jumped up over the barbecue. Sho had been home, I saw, and had come back washed and spit-polished. He wore a pressed white shirt, a cardigan sweater and a pair of slacks. In the moonlight, his hair shone with pomade, and he smelled of Old Spice.
“Moonflower,” he said, shining his light on a sunset-colored bloom trumpeting from the side of a slim cactus. “Only blooms in the moonlight and only blooms once. I thought tonight is the night.”
“Tonight’s the night,” I said. “Look at that.” Big as a soup bowl, this raucous flower, petals fanned out like feathers in a duster, like the skirts of a cancan girl thrown high. I felt a stab of its desperate joy.
Sho handed me the flashlight and climbed out of the planter box.
“Where are you going?”
“I wanted to see it and I saw it,” said Sho, lowering himself down to the patio. “I always wanted to see one of those flowers. That’s why I planted that plant. Takes three years to bloom. Now I’ve seen it.”
“What’s your hurry?” I said, following him, leaping and jogging. “Slow down.”
“I have to go,” said Sho, but he let me catch up. He almost smiled. “I have a date,” he said.
“You do?” I said. I was surprised. I wouldn’t have been more surprised if my dead parents had climbed out of a tree.
“Third date,” said Sho. He was smiling. “A very good lady. I meet her at nine,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
He left me standing in the middle of his lawn, holding his flashlight.
I felt lonely all of a sudden, really very lonely and too aware of the facts of my life: a grown man, living in his sister’s backyard, spending his inheritance and the ill-gotten profit of plundered coins. Whenever I thought of these truths, I felt as a man might, looking at an impersonator of himself, an impersonator in ragged dress, his hat on the pavement open for tips.
My problem was, I didn’t want to do anything. In this city of doing, making, buying—of selling-the-car and of running-the-bar and of bringing-the-war-picture-in-under-budget—there was nothing, it seemed to me, worth doing, and even if there had been, the pursuit of it, the doing itself, would create a responsibility to keep doing, to keep going and doing, and then who would I be in the face of my striving? I’ll tell you: I’d be the guy following orders, the guy getting out of the Jeep to search the building for survivors, to lay out the dead bodies, to poach the coins, to shoot, as a matter of course, some poor Italian kid who had nothing but his baby sister and a BB gun.
That guy was not even someone I wanted to know.
I switched off Sho’s flashlight and lay down on the grass. The stars spattered the sky. I didn’t know the first thing about the stars, but I liked them, and I liked the feeling I got looking into the deep universe, thinking that there was no end to it, and nothing beside it, thinking it was all that existed, all there ever was. The human mind just plummeted off a cliff, thinking about the stars in the sky. I floated belly up beneath the stars, buoyed by Sho’s lawn, taking deep breaths and blowing them out. I lay there like a man I wasn’t, like a man at home on the water.
One month into lessons the mood of Can’t-Swim-At-All Group B had changed for the better. Though the mornings had only grown colder and darker, the journey down the steps, across the deck and into the pool was less grim. The ocean, grousing and sloshing as much as ever, seemed tamer or at least safely contained. Still, when Helen suggested we venture into the deep end of the pool, the Daves objected.
“Are you trying to kill me?” said Arthritic Dave.
“I need more practice,” said Swarthy, pulling on his hairy ear.
“Okay, okay,” said Helen. “We’ll save it for next week. Today we’ll work on your form. You gentlemen look like cats in a sink.” She got out the kickboards again to bully our feet back into line, then she worked on our arms. “Don’t smack at the water,” she said to toothy Dave. “Your hand is an airplane, landing on the surface of the pool before it sinks down.” She demonstrated again.
Toothy smacked. He sent up a geyser of water that had us all wiping our eyes. I saw young Dave smiling triumphant.
Helen squinted at us, exasperated. “Hey Charlie,” she said to me. “Come out here and show us how it’s done.”
At Sis’s house, it was time to trim the rose bushes. Sho and I worked with saws and clippers. We wore thick gloves against the thorns. As we toiled, we talked about astronomy.
“But how does an astronomer make a living?” asked Sho.
“He studies the stars.”
“Who pays him?”
“Other astronomers, or people who care about what astronomers say.”
Sho paused a moment and looked at me. “Who pays them?”
“That’s not the point,” I said, irritated.
He turned his back on me and gave all his attention to hacking away at a woody old variety called Mr. Lincoln.
“The point is that there are people called astronomers who study astronomy and who get paid for doing it.”
“I’ve never met one. Doesn’t sound like a promising line of work.”
The sun was hot. Already I had a five-inch scratch on my forearm.
“Who cares who you’ve met or haven’t met. Jesus. What do you have to do with it?”
Sho didn’t answer, but hacked harder at the plants. This was the silent treatment. I knew from experience that he’d keep on with it for hours.
He plodded away from me, aiming his shears at the Double-Delight. He wouldn’t even look my way.
“Old man!” I shouted. “Why don’t you find a more promising line of work? Do you like being a gardener? Do you like crouching over these vegetables each day in the sun, on this land that isn’t even yours, getting your paltry checks from my self-righteous sister and her cheap B-movie husband.”
“Your sister is a nice lady,” said Sho. “I would not say anything against her.” He shoved Mr. Lincoln’s limbs farther into his canvas sack and stalked off.
I was instantly sorry. I dropped my shears to the ground and took off my gloves. Tears glazed my eyes, and, ashamed of myself, I squatted down and pressed my wrists to my face. From inside my sister’s house, the sound of the radio—some old big band number pulled down out of the sky, easy as flipping a switch, easy as slapping your hands together and saying Our Father. Well, bully for Sissy, bully for her and her Sky-Lounge-Safety-Interior life. What did I want from her anyway? Did I want her to be out here in the thorn bushes with me and with Sho?
According to Sissy, Sho had never complained about me, never let on that he might be burdened by my bleak presence, my interruption of his solitude. I could not understand it—how he put up with me, even if I never asked to be paid and even if on most days I did good work. This was his job, after all, not mine. I could only guess at Sho’s empathy for me: a fellow traveler who, like him, remembered a time when he could never have imagined himself stuck in a fat lady’s garden on Coldwater Canyon.
I wiped my nose on the hem of my shirt and put my gloves back on. Lunchtime, roughly. I cleaned up my branches and hauled up my bag of debris.
Sho was sitting under a pepper tree at the edge of the lawn.
“I’m very sorry,” I said to him, laying my sack of thorns next to his.
Sho waved his hand at me, dismissing my apology. “Sit,” he said. “Ask me about my date.”
“How was your date?”
“It was very good,” said Sho. He squinted critically at his beautiful lawn, as though that were the end of the conversation.
“Are you going to elaborate?” I asked.
‘No,” said Sho.
“Was there at least some hanky panky?”
“Mind your business,” said Sho. “I have an answer to your question.”
“About gardening for your sister and her B-Movie husband. It is better for me not to think about liking or not liking. I have had many different occupations. In every case it was better not to think about liking or not liking. It is better, now, to think about the plants. My father taught me this. He was Shinto.”
“Tell me about Shinto,” I said.
“Shhh,” said Sho. “Another time. It is better, now, to think about the plants.”
I sat in silence with Sho and thought about thinking about the plants. A breeze riffled through the garden. The hibiscus flowers bobbed their red heads, yes. We didn’t say anything for a few minutes more.
“Of course,” said Sho, finally. He gave me a sly look. “If I were digging in this garden and my shovel hit a chest full of treasure, I wouldn’t complain.”
“Wouldn’t hurt your chances with the lady,” I said.
Sho let out a laugh. “Ha! Ha-ha!” he said.
A couple of starlings flew down out of the tree and hopped across the lawn, looking around like tourists. The old man was still chuckling. He took off his hat, wiped his eye with his knuckle and started laughing again, hearty laughter from his big-hearted chest. It bubbled around me. I wanted to tell him how well I was swimming; how light I felt in the water, now; how just in the past week the old fear had vanished.
Instead, I made a quick, good decision. “Wait here,” I said, getting up and starting for the cottage. “I have something I want to give you, old man.”
That very night I awoke around midnight to the wind blowing excitement into the trees. I got out of bed and put on my robe; I wanted to see what was happening out there. Sure enough, the sky was moonless, clear, every cloud pushed to Kingdom Come, and the stars were living large.
I shaved, brushed my teeth and hair, pressed a shirt and dressed—looking sharp—nabbed my shoes, my brown paper swimming bag, and Sis’s car keys. I was stepping out. The lawn felt like a trampoline under my feet, encouraging me forward. In the garage, the Rambler’s chrome bumper winked my way.
I’d given all the coins—the whole shoebox of my filthy lucre—to Sho. My sacrifice: I’d explained to him that I just couldn’t keep them anymore, that they were heavy, an anchor tossed to the wrong harbor. I’d held back only the 3 Kreutzer. That one belonged to Oscar. I tossed it onto the passenger seat and drove myself into the city.
When I got there, The Observatory looked dark: door locked, lights out, barstools up on the bar. I pounded on the glass door. “Oscar!” I yelled. Then, I got smart and walked around to the back. I rapped on the office window. “Hey Oscar!”
Oscar opened the shade and the window just enough to reveal his eyes and curly brows. Cigarette smoke rose from the sill. “I’m closed,” he said.
“You’re open until 2:00.”
“It’s a Tuesday night. I close at 1:00. What do you want?”
“Show me some heavenly bodies,” I said.
“I’m sober,” I said.
“I don’t care who you are,” said Oscar.
“It’s Charlie.” I said. “Your old pal Charlie.” I held the 3 Kreutzer up to the window. “Show me some heavenly bodies and this coin is yours.”
Oscar raised the window shade high to see me better. “Your name is David,” he said.
“Not anymore. Come on, Oscar. Please. It’s a clear night.”
Oscar stuck his cigarette in his mouth. “Awwright. Jesus. Okay. I’ll be right out.”
I followed him up the fire escape to the roof where the telescope stood wrapped and tied, like a victim of foul play.
“It’s windy,” he said, “so watch yourself.” We worked on the knots and unbundled the instrument, a big machine, probably six feet long. A man could have stuck his head inside its central barrel. With care, Oscar removed the lens covers.
“I’m going to show you a planet,” said Oscar.
“Great,” I said.
Oscar squatted down, peered into the eyepiece and moved the telescope on its big swivel, searching the sky. He tightened a wheel at the base to hold his position, then he made some small adjustments with a couple of silver knobs up near the top. “Okay,” he said. “Come here, Charlie.” He took one more look into the telescope. “Yep,” he said, standing aside. “Here, meet Jupiter.”
I smiled and handed the coin to Oscar.
“You’re crazy,” he said. “I’m not taking that.”
“Yes you are,” I said. “A deal is a deal.” I pressed it into his palm, then ducked down to see what I could see. In the overblown world of Oscar’s telescope, my reflected eyelashes looked like the talons of enormous birds. I inched closer to lift the claws away, and there he was: mighty Jupiter.
“You really want to see some things,” said Oscar, “you should go up to the Planetarium two miles away from here, instead of keeping me up all night.”
“Shhhh,” I said, because Jupiter, the size of a pea, was not white like starlight—more beige, more drab—no diamond in the sky, as in song. It was clayey, like a real thing, real as a clod of dirt—well, it was a real thing, but I hadn’t ever thought about it that way, and so I needed Oscar to shut up for a minute. I took it in: the solidness of Jupiter, but also the smallness of it, floating out there in the profound blackness of outer space. My god, it seemed lonely, a land in exile. Thinking of that, I felt something like the unfurling of a tight bud in my throat, and I had to turn away and cough to keep my bearings on this earth.
I was shaken up. Oscar took me in, poured me a coffee and lit me a cigarette. He tried to give my coin back to me again, so I had to tell him, “That coin. I like to look at it and hold it, but I can’t think about it anymore.” I didn’t want to say anything else, didn’t want to get Oscar’s imagination revved because the truth was, I came by that Austrian coin without drama, found it in the old inkwell of somebody’s desk, lifted it without really looking at it and pushed it down into my boot.
This was in Italy, right after I’d started collecting coins—right after I’d decided Caesar could take what was Caesar’s. I’d been in the business of warfare for six months and hadn’t suffered so much as a foot blister, a kind of miracle, it seemed, given the scene around me. A few days earlier, when that Italian kid had shot at me with his BB gun, I’d actually believed that God, favoring me above others, had made me bulletproof. Hard to absorb such colossal foolishness, I know, but I’d been told all my life God would protect me. Me, above others. And the kid’s pellets hit hard, stung, but bounced away.
I probably would have been taking pot-shots at the Americans, too, if I’d been that Italian kid, up in my family’s apartment, parents nowhere, nothing but scraps of bread and radishes in the kitchen, my little sister pulling at the leg of my pants. I went up into his building, forced the door and saw him pointing his gun out the window. Then, I shot him without seeing his face. When his body recoiled I knew he could not have been more than twelve. He looked hard at me, though, before he died. He cried out to me, his hands clenched beneath his chin. He begged for his mother.
Afterward, I carried the screaming sister—a child who could not yet walk—to the sergeant. I never learned what happened to her, but I didn’t pray for her, not even out of habit.
I finished my coffee and said goodnight to Oscar. It was nearly 3:30, too late to fall asleep with any hope of waking in time for my swimming lesson. No point in backtracking. The Rambler’s tank was full, so I piloted her south, down Santa Monica to the coast. I took the scenic route, cutting west to drive seaside through the beach towns, but I had to stop and crank up my windows, because it was cold and because, driving alone on a moonless night, the edge of the continent could seem like the edge of the world.
I hoped Sho would be happy. I hoped he’d get hitched and buy himself a house with a pool, maybe give up gardening and get back into business. At the same time, I regretted the loss of my coins, felt almost as though they’d been taken from me, could not imagine how to get along without them—how to begin patching things up with my sister, how to make my own way home. I was not, I understood, a good man.
Alone on the road, I was thinking of all this, and also about the deep end of the Roessler Pool. I’d been thinking of that all week, since Helen had suggested it, considering the threat of deep water—yes—but also wondering what a man might find in deep water: a lost land, an ancient coin, a lover’s melted ice? I imagined the pleasure of diving far, far down into the peaceful blue and swimming, weightless and free, until I rose, my upturned face breaking the surface with splashless grace.
Ahead, the lights of Torrance ended, and beyond that loomed the primeval darkness of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. There, in private, the stars descended, tatted their lights together, and made a lace of the night sky. Some of them, I knew, were glittering on the black, slick surface of the Roessler Pool. Some of them bobbed and dove. Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Saturn. All I wanted was to fly through the water among them, feel their orbital force tugging at my ankles, touch their enormous cold grey heads.
I parked the Rambler at the ivy gate and turned off the lights. Then I closed my eyes, and I waited for my lesson.