'Counting Water'

Third-Place Winner

The water's colder than I like. I prefer tubwater, but I inch down anyway, flinching a bit at mid-thigh, and at the underside of my breasts, the back of my neck. It will get better after the second lap, while I'm flailing my fleshy arms, my squat legs.

It's so quiet in the mornings, when I get here. I can still feel the nighttime, even indoors, under the greenish fluorescence. These are the kind of lights where there are no corners left dark. Reminds me of the hospital, and all those trips to the ER with Albert, week in, week out.

Albert is home in bed, asleep, no longer snoring, which I never thought I'd miss, now that he wears the oxygen mask for his apnea. It's dead quiet there too.

It's just me and Clint, the lifeguard. Fridays aren't so crowded. The master swimmers take the day off. Their shoulders, thighs, kickboards usually torpedo past me.

"Morning, Bev," Clint calls out from the far end of the pool.

It's 5:28 a.m. I pull the cap over my thin hair, pushing up the loose ends with my finger.

He flips on his radio, to the classical station. I can hear the slow waltz as my head bobs in and out of the water. My arms swoosh through the clearness; my round torso, weightless. Swimming is tranquil and floaty, like I imagine heaven.

Mary Beth, up at church, says why on God's green grass would a 73-year-old woman get out from between warm bedsheets and go splash around in the middle of the night.

Peacefulness, I guess. She should try it. Then she wouldn't have to drink so much Diet Coke or watch the shopping network. Mercy, the shopping network.

But I don't say anything. I know how things don't change, even when you offer up the cleverest advice. Like when I say, "Al, why don't you come to the library with me. You're just circling life's parking lot." That doesn't faze him a lick.

He stares at the TV. It's outlandish, how big it is, and so loud. Our son Bill says, "The airport is going to call and complain about the noise." Bill's such a hoot.

But there Albert sits. All those years I complained about him spending weekends at the golf course. But now I know. Those days were the real buffet; now we're down to scraps and bones.

After the heart attack, he retired from work, and golf. Took up sitting. He was like to drive me up a wall and across the ceiling. The medical bills have eaten our savings.

Thursday is Thanksgiving and Bill and his wife and kids can't come. They will go skiing. That's their tradition, I guess.

Up and down the pool, I make my grocery list in my head: sausage, sweet potatoes, marshmallows – Al loves that gooey casserole. I don't grouse because it's a holiday. I'm thinking ham instead of turkey this year.

It becomes a chant of bubbles. "Pumpkin, cranberry, celery," over and over through the water. I love to cook a big meal, keeping my hands busy with the chopping, peeling, rolling the dough.

And now I wonder, is this 9 laps or 10?

I come home soggy. I slip into the bathroom. Albert doesn't know I leave in the mornings. He doesn't like me to go; he needs me, and besides, what if something happens, like a streak of angina. But so far, I'm lucky. His breath is as regular as the ocean waves. The oxygen machine clicks and hums all night.

Come bedtime, I get on my knees, lean over the mattress and bow my head. It's the least I can do to thank the Lord for keeping me healthy, and Al alive and we're not destitute. Sundays, I don't swim. Like the Lord asks, I take my day of rest, except for watching Al.

On Monday, I go to church to assemble food packages for the needy. You'd be surprised how many folks pass through our little pantry.

James comes in. Friendliest guy in the world, but his breath pins my ears back. He's got manners, though. Most people just take their bags and go, but James always chats, makes me feel like we are actually helping to fill up something that is empty.

"I sure appreciate this," he says, real buttery. "Should do me until I get a line on a job." His eyes are about as red as mine were the time I forgot my goggles and went swimming in the chlorine.

He pats down his shirt and pulls out a flattened cigarette. Albert smoked those things for years, filling ashtrays all over the house.

Mary Beth whispers, "It's a miracle he hasn't set fire around here." I don't even nod.

I've passed James while driving to the grocery. He walks along the sidewalk usually a beer can in his hand, even in the mornings. Once I saw him at the bus stop. I knew it was James, wearing that same cap with a big X on it. Like "X" marks the spot. Next time I see him, I'm going to ask what that X means.

I wonder if he would recognize me in this car, wearing my swimsuit in the dark morning. Does anyone know he's out here in the middle of the night – or care? Then I wonder the same thing about me.

Clint didn't bring music today. There's only gulps and splashes. And the counting in my head. It seems like I'm screaming, like when we're singing the Hallelujah chorus in choir practice, but really, there's no sound. Trying to keep track of all those laps. Was that 14 or 15? So I start over, with 14, because you can never be certain.

Lord knows I'm not fast, but I don't wear out either. I swear I could have crossed the English Channel when I was younger.

There's a whole crew of us at the pool, who swim every day. None of them know my name, but they recognize my face. One lady asked whether I ever swam competitively. "You're here when I get here, and still at it when I'm toweling off."

"Well," I said. "I just like to keep going."

At church, I'm scooping rice into baggies when James walks in. Most times you are allowed only two sacks a month, but James manages to get extra referrals. He's got ingenuity, underneath those stained teeth and gritty nails.

I've never had a beer. I can't get past that smell, like moldy bread. Mary Beth fills his sack with beans and whatnot. I yawn, up late last night again, another pain with Al at the ER.

She whispers, "I wouldn't be surprised if he tweren't selling these groceries. You know, I've seen him loitering at Kroger's. I'd just as leave not see him here."

I wonder who needs food more than a jobless, homeless drunk, but Mary Beth has her mouth.

James asks if the church might need any handiwork. I say I could check with pastor.

I'm always surprised how many folks are driving around at dawn. The car makes a grinding sound, and I just hope it holds up. When I get home, I fold my hands and say, "Dear Lord, thank you that I got to swim, and the car didn't break down and the water was warm and Al didn't get lonely, he needs me so. Ah-men."

At the Lord's Kitchen, James' eyes are redder than usual. He waits quietly in line, head bowed, almost in prayer, though he could be nodding off the way Al does in front of the football games.

He doesn't say, "Morning, ma'am."

I hand him his bag, and he looks up, and I inhale quickly. He has a dark purple eye. A shiner, I guess you'd call it, though it sure doesn't shine.

"What happened?" I blurt. Sometimes I just can't stop myself. Who am I to question him? He waltzes in his circles, and I have mine.

"Just ran into some slippery people," he says, his voice more gravelly than usual. "But I'm still standing."

I feel tired for him and his life, going from bus stop to beer store to food pantry. It must feel like 36 laps.

"James," I say, pausing. "How would you like to come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. We'll have a real spread."

Mary Beth gasps, but I don't look her way. I just look into James' black eye.

"That sounds like an offer too nice to pass up. Thank you much," and he smiles, putting a host of wrinkles around his black eye. "Yep, sounds positively scrumptious," he says, which is a word I'm surprised he uses, being so gruff and all.

Al won't like it. He'll think James is out to rob us. I give James a paper with my number, tell him to call for directions. I think, that way, our address won't get spread around James' friends, and whatnot, then I think, boy Beverly, give with one hand and take away with the other.

Just the other day, I read a newspaper story about a woman who swam the English Channel. She said the hardest part wasn't the cold water or the exhaustion, but just the plain boredom of it, kicking and pulling her body mile after mile. She would sing herself nursery rhymes to pass the time. I can see what she means. The endless hours of nothing to think about.

I suppose I would run out of grocery lists to memorize. I haven't told Al about our Thanksgiving guest. He would just worry. I've got to trust my own small voice that pipes up when I least expect it. Mine gets frog-throated sometimes, because I forget it's even there.

When Al and I had been dating a year, he took me to pick out a ring. I lingered over one setting. I liked it, I suppose, but Al thought for certain, that this was the one I wanted. So the jeweler put it in the little velvet box. I didn't know how Al planned to swing the payments.

Every time I lifted my hand, I would see that flash of diamond. It startled me, and reminded me that I was going to be Mrs. Albert Fox.

I've kept it clean these years, but my eyes have grown used to it. I never notice the diamond anymore. Isn't that something? I never take it off – not like some women who put it on the sink to wash dishes – but I never see it there.

Al used to walk me home in the evenings. He'd say, "Race you to the stop sign," and then take off. He didn't care that I didn't even quicken my pace. He'd run till he reached the corner and slapped the pole. "I won," he'd beam.

I wiggle my ring finger to see if the diamond light will dance across the pool water for me, but nothing. I take off my steamy goggles, and for the life of me, I can't recall how many laps I've finished.

It's Turkey Day. I told Al we might have a visitor, and he shrugged. Maybe he didn't hear me, because the TV was up so loud.

The pool is closed, of course, so I squeeze his shoulder. I used to do that when we were younger and I wanted to let him know I was there, awake next to him. It's been a long time now. A decade? I wonder if he'll roll toward me with a sleepy grin.

But there's nothing, only the slow breath in, and breath out. Sometimes, I breathe in sync with it.

I get up, and start cooking. I turn on the parade on the small TV. I'm rolling out crust for blueberry pie, weaving the strips like a basket on top.

Al watches football all day. The phone rang earlier, but it was only LouAnne wanting to borrow my citrus zester.

By 6:30, I figure James isn't coming. I hope he's with a nice lady friend. (Mary Beth says I can be too cheerful sometimes, but I say boo to that.)

When we finally sit down to dinner, we bow our heads and Al says, "Lord, thank you for this meal we are about to receive. Amen."

Al leaves the TV on, so we hear referee whistles all through the meal. It's better than the clank of fork and knife on the good china. After a few quiet moments, he asks, "Where's your friend?"

"I guess he couldn't make it," I sigh. I picture James huddled with his buddies, swapping stories about the worst meal they've ever scrounged up I'd like to hear those tales; they'd probably surprise the bejeebers out of Mary Beth, but I don't mind.

Al wads up his napkin onto the plate, then says, "Good dinner, hon," reaching for his walker to go check the score. He glances back. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"You, too," I smile. I get up to clear the table.

I don't see James for another week. He's got on his big smile and X cap, that I still haven't figured out. He doesn't say anything about Thanksgiving, and I don't want to make him feel bad, so I don't either. I just hand him his bag, and say "Have a good day, sir." He winks. "I always do, ma'am. Always do."

Friday morning, the oxygen tank is clicking and whirring.

But Al doesn't move. His body is heavy, anchored under the quilt.

I massage his shoulder, a mere bone to the touch, but no reply. His oxygen mask has slipped a bit off his mouth. I don't feel the slow rise and fall of him.

I lean over Al, and his back feels cool. I gently rustle him, but nothing answers. I look into his face, so calm and motionless, like a pool of unrippled water. I pull my legs to the edge of the bed and rise up, pulled forward, a toy boat on a string.

The water is warm, just the way I like it.

"Morning, Beverly," Clint calls out. I have all the lanes to myself. I pick the one in the middle. I usually leave that to the faster swimmers, but today, there won't be many. I sit on the lip of the pool, dangling my legs, then lower my body in. I splash my arms, check my watch, and push off into the shimmering blue. The water embraces me. I kick hard and fast.

When I get home, I will call 911.

I picture Al racing me down the quadrangle, so fast and intent. The sky is still midnight blue. Today I will just keep going until I can't go any further. My legs are strong. My arms churn heavily. Fingers cupped, arms stretching as far as I can reach. I'm no longer counting water.

Today, I really think I could swim the English Channel.

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