“C’mon, Champ, let’s go swimming at the Y.”
Usually my dad called me Knucklehead, Lump, or Fogbound. But Champ! He could have said to me, “C’mon, Champ, let’s go jam frozen peas up our noses!” and I’d have been standing at the freezer before he could say, “I was joking. You’re a basket case.” Because he’d called me Champ.
So immediately I was all in for going swimming at the Y. But if my five years of life had taught me anything, it was that the Boy Scouts, scary outfits or not, were right: Be Prepared.
I found my dad already in my parents’ bedroom, searching through one of his dresser drawers, his canvas duffle bag on the bed.
“What’s the Y?” I asked.
“What’s the why of what?”
“Okay, clam it, Costello. Go get your swimsuit. Jesus, it’s like living with Bobo the Babbling Chimp.”
Looking for my swimsuit in my bedroom, I wondered who Bobo the Babbling Chimp was. Probably a monkey on TV, or the movies.
“Well, he’s not me,” I said. I found my swimsuit. It was white with little red anchors on it.
I’d never been in a locker room before. It was low benches and navy blue lockers as far as the eye could see. It smelled like bleach, perspiration, and Old Spice. I may as well have been on Mars.
My dad drops his canvas duffel bag onto a bench. He unzips it and pulls out my swimsuit, along with one of our towels from home. He tosses them to me. Dread comes over me as I realize that whatever “swimming at the Y” was, it entailed me having to get naked right out here on planet Lockermars.
“Hey, Fogbound. Come back from wherever it is you spend all your time. Pick a locker and change into your suit. Let’s go.” My dad yanks off his shirt, and starts right in on his belt buckle. I look away so quickly that I almost lose control of my head and ram it through one of the lockers. I’ve once before seen my dad’s hairy gargantuan monster dick, and fully intend that to remain a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I open the nearest locker, hopeful that it might prove spacious enough for me to use as a changing room. And it might have, too, if I could have changed into Big Mike, my guinea pig.
“Let’s move, Little Lord Fauntleroy,” says my dad. He’s already in his swimsuit.
I change into mine at cartoon speed. Throwing his towel over his shoulder, my dad heads down a corridor from the locker room. I run to keep up with him, as I always do, since in two strides he traverses about the same amount of ground it would take me about a day to hike across.
Even from behind, I love the way my dad looks with his towel on his shoulder. So I cavalierly toss my towel over my shoulder. It stays there for about one second before dropping onto the floor. Turns out the cool look of something draped over your shoulders is challenging to pull off if you don’t have shoulders.
By the time I catch up with my dad, we’re walking in the largest indoor space I’ve ever been in. But where the floor should be there’s mostly water. The light in the whole place seems somehow softer than regular indoor light. And we’re echoing in a weird, muted way.
“And here’s the pool!” says my dad.
I’d seen bathtubs, kiddie pools, above-ground pools, one lake, and the ocean. This was definitely none of those. The sheer size of the pool was just about overwhelming. For a quick moment I wondered if it did ocean-style waves. Either way, I stay close to my dad as we walk on the cold cement alongside Lake Rectangular.
When we arrive at a trio of green plastic chairs along the wall, my dad drapes his towel over the back of one of them. Then he strolls right over to the edge of the pool.
I busy myself trying to get my towel to hang off one of the other chairs in just the right way. But my dad sees right through this avoidance tactic. “Hey. We’re not decorating the place. Leave the towel, and come over here.” He holds out his hand toward me. “C’mon, son. You won’t get hurt. I promise.”
And that launches me into three flashbacks, which come in rapid succession.
In the first one I’m three years old, and sitting on my father’s giant shoulders. This has me dizzyingly high in the air, because he is six foot four. I’m holding onto his forehead. It feels like a thin cut of warm steak draped over a bowling ball. I’ve been up there a few times before. But this time it’s different, because this time, instead of just standing still or walking, he’s broken into a trot. This is terrifyingly thrilling.
I don’t want my dad thinking I’m afraid of this outrageously dangerous fun we’re now having. So I try to hold onto his forehead with just the right amount of pressure to convey, I’m cool as a cucumber, of course—but, ho-hum, I may as well not topple over backwards to my death.
But then he breaks into something more gallop than trot, and instantly I’m like apanicked leprechaun clinging to a watermelon in a tornado.
My hands begin to slip off his forehead. I desperately need something else to hang onto. His ears offer an immediate solution, but I don’t really know how firmly they’re attached, or how stretchy they might get. His hair’s too thin; it might pull out. Directly below my hands are his eye sockets, which would be ideal—but only for me, and only before he screamed and crashed. Should I hang onto his nose, which certainly seemed big enough? No. Bad idea.
And then it hits me: take hold of either side of his mouth. If I do that right, he won’t be able to bite me. He might even enjoy the cool breeze upon his back teeth.
Before I can move my hands, though, a whole new problem is literally opening up before me.
We are dashing along an outside passageway that runs the length of the large brick apartment building in which we live. To our left is a cement wall about as high as my dad’s waist. To our right is the long row of the apartments’ white front doors.
Beside each of these doors is an identical smallish window set in an industrial-strength gray metal frame. These windows are placed high enough for just about any person—even someone as tall as my father—to safely pass beneath. They are, in fact, exactly as far off the ground as my face happens to be at the moment.
As we are racing straight toward it, one of the windows pops out from the plane of the wall. It begins to swing outward.
It becomes exactly perpendicular to the wall a split-second before my face smashes into it. Then everything goes dark.
I was fine, turns out. But still.
In my second flashback I’m swinging on a swing-set in a public park on a cloudy afternoon. I’m delighted by how masterful a swinger I’ve become. I can’t see really all that much difference between me just then and an astronaut, or a paratrooper, or even Tarzan, whom I’d been seriously emulating ever since the day my sister convinced me he was real.
My father is standing down on the ground before me. He is holding out his hands. “Jump!” he calls.
Swinging back away from him, I wonder if I heard him right.
On my next trip forward, he confirms that I did. “C’mon! Jump! I’ll catch ya!”
By my very next swing toward and then above him, I’m seriously considering it. I had been teasing myself with the idea even before he encouraged it. Because why shouldn’t I jump from the swing? I was coordinated. I was brave. God knows I wanted to fly. And I’d seen plenty of bigger kids do it. I wanted to be a bigger kid.
Maybe this really was my time.
“C’mon!” says my dad. “Jump! I promise I’ll catch you!”
If the man says he’ll catch me, he’ll catch me. He was big, strong, and athletic enough to catch King Kong jumping off the Empire State Building. Of course he’d catch me. He could catch me with one arm behind his back.
I yell to him, “Okay! I’m gonna do it!”
“Are you ready?”
“You’ll catch me, right?”
“Yes! Jump already!”
“Okay, I will!”
“Anytime this week?”
“Yeah, next time! You ready?”
“Whaddaya want from me? I’m ready!”
“Okay! This is it! One!”
“Oh, come on. Jump!”
“Third time’s a charm!”
“Here I come!” And sure enough, just as my swing is about to reach the top of its forward trajectory, I set myself sailing away from it.
It feels like I can see the whole world. It’s impossible that I should be so high up in the air. I feel like a bird.
It’s working. I’m doing it. I’m almost done doing it.
I’ve just begun my harrowing return to earth when, from somewhere off behind my father, my sister, with all of her might, screams, Daddy!
And damn if he doesn’t turn his head to look.
And double-damn if I don’t do a face-plant in the tanbark one inch from his foot.
I’m was fine, turns out. But still.
In my final flashback I’m walking on the barren ground in front of our brick apartment building. It’s mainly packed dirt, dead grass, and random clumps of what could probably pass as grass if it got more organized.
I’m headed toward the building, which is still a way off. I see that I’m about to come to a dirt mound that’s pretty big. But it looks soft enough, and I opt to walk over it rather than go around.
With my first step onto it, my whole leg immediately sinks all the way into the mound. My other leg gets kicked out straight; I’m now sitting on my butt. Before my ass even touches the ground, the leg in the hole feels like all of its flesh is being burned off by fire.
I scream before I even know I’m screaming.
Then my dad is there. Clamping onto the back of my shirt, he flies me out of the hole. My mother has also come running. “He stepped in fire ants! Go turn on the hose!” My mom pivots and runs back to the house.
And then I’m dangling in the air as my dad, holding me at arm’s length, runs behind my mom. He sets me down, snatches the running hose from my mom, and starts spraying me with cold water like I’m the side of a car he’s washing.
“Put your arms up,” he says. He’s calm, but I can see he’s scared. I raise my arms, and he pulls off my shirt. He’s moving as fast as he can. “Sit,” he says. I do, and he pulls off my shoes and socks. He also tears off my pants, but not my underwear. He sets me back on my feet.
This whole time he’s been hitting me with water so hard it feels like I’m drowning. But I’m not arguing, because all I want is for the burning that’s now covering all of my lower body and most of my upper to be even slightly relieved. Simultaneous with his relentless hosing, my dad’s furiously running his huge hands all over my body. I get why. He’s trying to brush off the ants.
He grabs the waistband of my tighty-whities, yanks it forward, and jams his thumb and the end of the hose right in there, spraying me in places I can go a whole bath without getting wet. First down the front, then down the back, then up one leg of the underwear, then up the other.
Finally he stops. I’m dripping so hard it’s like I’m raining. And I cannot stop shaking. I’m not crying, I’m not screaming, I barely know where I am. All I know is that I’m vibrating like every single cell in my body is short-circuiting, which it basically is.
My dad’s face is before me. “You okay? Son, you okay?” But responding would take one scintilla of body control, and that’s more than I have available to me at the moment.
My dad disappears. When he quickly returns he’s holding my red and white bicycle, which I love. “Here, sit on this,” he says. “Take it for a ride.”
I manage to turn my shaking head just enough so that I can look at him to see if maybe he accidentally hosed his own brains out.
“Honey, no,” says my mom.
“Yeah, that’s what he needs. Riding his bike will calm him down.”
My dad lifts me up, sets me on the bike seat, and places my shivering hands on the handlebars. Then he gives me a little push. We’re at the top of a downhill slant just slight enough for the bike to start moving forward.
I know that if I can just get my feet onto the slowly turning pedals, my dad’s anxiety will be relieved. I want that. But though I can feel the pedals knocking on my feet, I cannot stop my shaking enough to get my feet to stay on them.
I start crying. I try to keep it quiet enough for my dad not to hear. The bike has picked up a little speed. Through my tears I see, directly ahead of me, a tree. It’s not a towering oak or anything, but it’s definitely a tree. And I’m definitely going to run right into it.
I do. And that causes something to happen which I had not thought possible. My bike tips over. And down we go, training wheels, shaking, and all.
I was fine. But still.
“Hey there, Norm! Is that your boy?”
I look to see four men I hadn’t noticed earlier sitting on the steps way over in the shallow end of the pool. I’ve haven’t seen a whole lot of men without their shirts on, let alone four big old wet men sitting in water. I try not to stare at their freakish, glistening fat.
“Nah,” answers my dad. “He’s just some waif I found in the parking lot.” The men chuckle. One of them says, “Takin’ a day from work, are ya?”
“I am! Figured I’d teach this strange child here how to swim.” He turns back toward me. “C’mon over here, strange child. It’s just water. I promise you won’t get hurt.”
It takes a few moments for those words to sync in with the situation before me. But then I dutifully walk over to my obviously, if not tragically, memory-deficient father.
Looking down at me, he says, “You ready?” I do a quick shrug and wiggle of my head in the “no” direction—which he takes as a yes. “All right, here we go.”
He bends down, takes hold of my left wrist and ankle, stands straight again, and just like that I’m dangling in the air. I weigh nothing to him.
He starts by swinging me away from the pool. “One!” he says, and then I’m out high above the pool—and then I’m swooping backwards again.
“Two!” Over the water—and back again. I’m hyper-aware of two things: I may barf, and if he lets me slip going the other way, I’m wall paste.
“Three!” And I’m launched.
I have not been this high in the air since that one time when I jumped from a swing.
He’s released me in such a way that now, in midair, I am facing him, in roughly the same position I’d assume sitting in a beanbag chair. He is still holding out his arms in the way they were the moment he sent me sailing.
At the same time I see how much fun he’s having, I see that he sees how much fun I’m not. I’m so affected by this that I surprise the both of us by suddenly smiling like a maniac and wildly waving at him.
Just when I hit the water I hear his joyous roar of a laugh, and I’m smiling all the way down.