So I was eleven years old, and still hadn’t learned how to swim. Despite my terror of the water, swimming was all I could think about because I lived with my mom and her trucker boyfriend in the Blue Star Motel and there was a pool not more than twenty feet from our room. Mom said, it was so much more than a motel! She was right too. It was a restaurant on one end and had a bar in the back. People came and went at the Blue Star, eating, drinking, sleeping, and whatever—if you know what I mean. I was old enough to know about men and women, but what I really wanted to learn how to do was dive into the deep end of the pool, swim underwater, and open my eyes and see in the pure chlorine where the world would slow down and let me catch my breath as the saying goes. I know it might sound crazy, but I had this idea in my head that I would swim underwater at night for the first time and see the world in slow motion with the lights around the pool flickering off the water and somehow I would discover how to breathe down there and then I’d never have to hold my breath again.
The owner, Tom Kline, had even allowed us to move the generic-looking motel furniture out for heavy flea market furniture that didn’t necessarily look any better, but it felt like our own. I thought it was a pretty sweet deal since I had a room all to myself. Mom worked at the Blue Star as a waitress, bartender in the lounge, and maid. She’d sign people in too when necessary, take their money when Rita was out nursing a hangover, and hand them the key on an orange diamond-shaped chain that said, if anything, “This place is not what you think it is, or on second thought…”
I’d been a mostly silent witness as my mom left a trail of men across the Show Me State and out west too. She couldn’t seem to hold onto a man and I began to wonder if it was some inability of hers to be head-over-heels about a man even after they’d made it. I wasn’t like one of those little shit-for-brains kids who sat around with his thumb up his ass wondering if his mommy and daddy got divorced because of him. Hell, I knew it wasn’t my goddamn fault. I couldn’t even remember my mom and real dad being married, but there was a double-exposed picture of us sitting on a bright blue and red blanket with my mentally handicapped, half-sister, the picture as fractured as everything our family was soon to become. The world out of focus and nonsensical like time itself had dropped a hit of acid and gotten seriously baked.
I’d watch her and Bear with a sense of dread waiting for the big ass breakup, but just when it started to seem imminent Bear would have to haul a load of bricks or something to New York or Ohio for J.T. Harris Trucking. He’d take off in his blue Kenworth with his 8-tracks of Waylon Jennings, Easy Rider magazines, and a fresh supply of speed. Looking back on it now, him leaving on such a regular basis probably extended their relationship by months. He was wearing a pair of Wrangler jeans with his name stenciled on his belt, cowboy boots, a western-style shirt with snaps, and a floppy hillbilly hat when he hit the road that day. I waved and gave him the universal sign for Trucker, honk your horn and he obliged. I shot him the bird but he smiled because he knew I didn’t mean it. Fuck you too, good buddy!
When the men came to clean out the pool and prepare it for the summer guests, I went out there to watch. I didn’t know how yet, but this was the summer I was going to learn to swim if it killed me. I was excited and terrified by the prospect all at once. It was the twin Anderson brothers with red hair down to their asses that were “commissioned” (as Tom Kline liked to put it) to do the work like some kind of fucking horror show. Those feral Andersons reminded me of animals that ran out of the woods in front of your screeching tires on Route HH. They had pale, freckled hides, and even after they took their shirts off their pasty Alfred Hitchcock skin refused to burn.
It was hard to imagine the pool would ever look halfway decent. There was a foot of mud down there clogging the drain but it didn’t deter the Andersons. And, yes, they had names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. I don’t why or what it is but a special brand of madness overtakes parents who are about to have twins and makes them name their twin boys Jesse and James Anderson. I didn’t know which was which, but it didn’t seem to matter since they were found under the same cabbage leaf. One of them jumped down into the pool with a white bucket and a rope attached to the handle. One of them red-headed sons-of-bitches scooped, a Marlboro red drooped out the side of his face, and the other Anderson tugged out the bucket and dumped it in a wheel barrel. They went on this way for quite some time.
“Hey, why don’t you go pull your pud?” one of the Andersons snickered to the other one.
“I already did that,” I shouted back at them from behind the relative safety of the fence. I hadn’t been riding with a trucker and hanging out, during the day anyway, at a bar for nothing. “I was thinking about your sister the whole time.” I knew this would piss them off because their sister Angie was the only good person to ever come out of their family even counting their old granny.
“Go ahead and take that picture then,” one of them said.
“The picture that lasts longer,” the other one grimaced and started coughing from smoking too much.
“I’m going to learn to swim this year,” I said, changing the subject with what I hoped was panache.
“You gotta be all of nine years old and still don’t know how to swim! Now that’s a damn shame. What are you? Some kind of pussy?”
They looked at each other and laughed and I swear it was like that Stephen King movie with the little girls on the trikes coming down the hall.
“I’m eleven,” I informed them. “I know that’s kind of old for not knowing how to swim, but Dennis Smith promised to teach me.”
“That piece of shit,” the ugliest Anderson said. “Why he’ll drown you before he teaches you to swim.”
“Damn straight,” James said. “You listen to Jesse here. That tub of goo will kill you.”
“I thought you were Jesse?” I said.
“Well,” he said. “I might be.” Then they started passing a roach between the two of them and making a big to-do about taking a hit off of it. Ever so often they’d stop what they were doing and take a snort off a little brown bottle of Rush as the traffic whizzed by on Highway 54. I knew Dennis wouldn’t try to kill me, but then I started to wonder maybe they were right.
“Here,” Jesse held out the brown bottle to me. “Try this kid. It will knock your dick in the dirt. It gots airplane glue beat all to hell.”
I shrugged and took a big show-off hit off it. I thought I went to heaven for a minute and shook hands with Saint Peter. The next thing I know those freaks were laughing and handed me their joint. I was surprised to find myself down in the pool with them.
“How was Jesus?” They both started giggling again and coughing up lungs.
“Man, I got to get out of here.” I struggled out of the pool, climbing the aluminum ladder, the sound of their laughter chasing me all the way up into the world again. “Next time I come by this pool I want to see it looking good and ready for business.”
“Kiss my ass, kid.”
I went down to the lounge called “The Attic” or “Attica” as some had started to call it lately. It was on the ground floor so I never knew why it was called that. Irony, I guess, but Tom didn’t seem like the irony type if you know what I mean. He was part business man and part professional wrestler. He had a tattoo on his forearm that said in loopy prose, “I don’t give a shit!” It was his favorite saying that might mean he just didn’t want to hear what you were saying. The weekend bartender, Linda, offered me a Graveyard as soon as I hit the door. She was six feet tall with her oxblood, knee-high boots on but there was something about her I always thought was pretty special. She knew my drink for one, but bartenders always know that before they know your name. It was the afternoon so nobody gave three shits if I was in there playing Space Invaders or pinball. Besides learning to swim, I was going to beat Billy Boy’s pinball record.
“He’s at AA today, Sweetie,” Linda said. “He’s trying to clean up his act.”
“You’re messing with me,” I said.
“I’m just telling you what God knows,” Linda winked.
Tugboat, another drunk at the bar, snorted at the idea Dennis could ever straighten up.
“I’m looking for him,” I said. “He’s going to teach me to swim this summer.”
“Yeah?” she said. “I wouldn’t count on it.” The way she said it made me wonder about the disappointment of adults although I couldn’t have put it like that exactly. Why did she stay with someone who couldn’t get his act together? It didn’t make sense to me until I got older and knew more about men and women first hand.
I sat on my stool knocking my glass back and forth between my hands as it hydroplaned on the bar like I’d seen Wiener do a thousand times when he was deep in thought. He spent every free minute he could find in the bar and now that he was laid off from the brick factory that was pretty much from open ’til close. Every time a pretty woman walked by the bar he dug at his crotch, but either didn’t know he was doing it or just plain didn’t care. He just looked like a wiener.
“This one’s going to break a lot of hearts one day,” Linda said over my shoulder. I turned to look and it was Mom dressed in jeans and an embarrasing multi-colored shirt that said in fat, bloopy letters THE ATTIC LOUNGE.
“Yep,” she said. “Probably so. You know you ain’t supposed to be in here.”
“I’m just drinking this Graveyard Linda gave me,” I said.
“I told you he had a huge crush on you,” Mom sat down a round tray of clean glasses on the bar.
“Mom!” I said. I’d never said it out loud, but I guess it wasn’t much of a secret.
A couple of truckers walked in and went straight for the shuffle board game against the wall. One of them whistled with his fingers at Linda to let her know they wanted two PBRs.
Linda had long chestnut hair and stood about six feet tall in her high heels. All the men loved her. Dennis was her boyfriend and he was about four inches shorter than her but he wasn’t exactly a little guy. He liked to say her legs were so long they went clean up and made an ass of themselves. I’d never seen Dennis sober for extended periods of time. I wasn’t sure how a guy who worked at a bar was supposed to kick the drinking habit. I knew it wasn’t going to take this time either. He’d tried AA before, hypnotism, jogging, disco dancing, and even being a Born Again Jesus-loving Christian which lasted all of two weeks, but he told me one day that the reason nothing worked was that he just plain and simple loved drinking. At the same time, he had to make Linda happy so she wouldn’t leave his fat ass. Dennis didn’t want to choose between Linda and alcohol so he did both. Bear called him the Heartbreak Kid because everything he did turned to shit.
“Goddamn jerk,” Dennis walked in. His blonde hair hit at about his shoulders and there was something kind of like a young lion about him that was just about to get his full mane. He had a lazy eye and again I wondered how it was Linda and him got together.
“What happened, baby?” Linda asked.
“I ran into that cock-knocker Bobby Ray Claymore at the Take-A-Break,” he growled and sat down on the stool next to mine. “How you doing, Killer? Get any today?” He ruffled my hair. “I was just coming out here from AA. Bobby Ray’s enough to start me drinking again.”
“What did he want?” Linda asked.
“Shit,” Linda whispered as she poured another draft for Tugboat.
Bobby Ray Claymore and Linda were married for seven years. I’d heard the story so many times before I could tell like it was one of my own. It was typical small town bullshit story. They were happy the first year or so, but then Bobby Ray started hitting the bottle hard, followed by hitting Linda harder…and he was even taller than her. He was a big dude like a professional wrestler. He had his own bail bond business. If one of his customers tried to skip out of town on him he’d go down to the Projects and pickup Boogie and together they’d go find this young Moses who made off for the promised land, throw him in the trunk of his Plymouth Fury III, drive the future Defendant back to Audrain county and throw him in the pokey to stand trial. Bobby Ray was a bad ass. Dennis was tough but he wasn’t even in the same league by comparison. If Dennis was regular guy tough, Bobby Ray was horrorshow evil.
The light from the daylight banged through the doors of the lounge and blinded everyone for a second. It was none other than Bobby Ray and Boogie looking like pissed-off zombies out for bad brains. I saw Dennis spin around like he might go for a gun if he’d had one.
“Well, well, well . . .” Bobby Ray patted the bulge in his jacket under his left armpit like he had a little angry midget riding shotgun up there. Dennis jutted his jaw toward Bobby Ray who always looked bigger in person than I remembered him. Instead of saying anything else Bobby Ray took a seat by the pool table with Boogie. The two men talked quietly between themselves and Boogie smiling the whole time like he was starring in a commercial for Ultrabrite toothpaste. I could see a dark gothic shadow spreading over Dennis and his future headstone. They got up and left just like that after staring holes into the back of Dennis’s head. When he got up to take a piss, and Linda was busy with Wiener, I swiped his pack of Kools and a green Bic lighter. I was becoming a regular clepto. I’d already stolen his shark’s tooth necklace. I don’t know why. It was really cool and he had left it out at the pool. I could never hope to be as cool as Dennis so I thought his shark tooth might give me some luck.
A few days past and I was at the pool by myself in the shallow end. I knew Dennis would show up because he was always working for Tom Kline just like my mom. Other guests, mostly mom types and their little kids, would come to the pool. Some of the kids had ear plugs or flippers and other pieces of diving gear even though they stayed in the shallow end. I waited until everyone had come and gone just shivering well into the evening hours. Mom appeared at the lip of the pool with a towel and a change of clothes.
“Why don’t you dry off and put these on? It’s dark out here. You ain’t allowed to swim at night.”
“I’m waiting for Dennis,” I said. “He promised to teach me to swim.”
It’s not that I was a total idiot, but I knew somehow if someone was going to teach me it would be Dennis. I knew he had problems what with Linda and Bobby Ray and his drinking. He had been in and out of jail to for first one dumb thing and then another, but I considered him a good friend all the same.
“Come down to the kitchen and Harry Lee will fix you a tenderloin sandwich for Christ’s sake,” Mom stumbled a bit unsteadily back to the room.
I was in the pool for the next four days in a row. Dennis had disappeared. Bear even came back and asked me if I thought Dennis was Aquaman. Until one day he did show up in a pair of red swim trunks with white stripes going down the sides. He lit a Kool and drank an Olympia until he jumped in feet first without spilling a drop of beer. I could almost taste the menthol. He was big-boned and a likeable guy but he was known to take advantage of people. Since I didn’t have any money or older sisters I didn’t hold none of that against him. Besides Mom had loaned him money and he kind of thought of her as an older sister.
“What’s up, Killer?” his cigarette flopping when he talked. He held up the line that separated the shallow from the deep end and stood there squinting at the blue smoke. “You ready to learn to swim today?” He was walking on the little ledge around the deep end.
“I’ve been trying,” I said.
“Don’t look so guilty,” Dennis sucked hard on the Kool and then gave it an expert flick over the fence. “I had a pack of Kools that just up and disappeared. Would you believe it?”
“I don’t know” I said. “It’s just embarrassing not being able to swim yet.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
“You hiding out from Bobby Ray and Boogie?”
“No,” Dennis said. “Who the hell told you that? I ain’t afraid of them two…but on the other hand I ain’t looking for them either.” He nodded at me. “You know what I’m saying?”
“I like the way you talk to me,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Like I’m a grownup instead of a kid,” I said. “I hate it when people talk to me like I’m a stupid kid.”
“Well,” he sipped his beer. “You’re smarter than most people twice your age here at the ole Blue Star. Now, I’m going to teach you to swim. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”
“You going to hold onto me and dunk me like they all do?”
“Why would I want to touch your ugly ass?” he said. “I’m just going to tell you how to do it and let you swim or drown like my dad taught me. He took me fishing in his bass boat out on Missouri river by Jeff City one summer. When we got out to the middle of the river I could see the bridge and the capitol up on the bluffs. He made like we run out of gas and told me it was time to swim or die. Then, he picked my husky ass up by the scruff of the neck and threw me out in the river. Swim or drown, Dennis! SWIM OR DIE!”
“Bullshit,” I said.
He pretended not to notice I said bullshit. “I started flailing around and went under the water and do you know what I saw?”
I shook my head.
“The biggest fucking catfish you ever seen,” he said. “He was as big as a Volkswagon! He started talking to me. What are you doing down here? Why are you bothering me? Son of Adam, you belong up above the water and not down below. Just swim on my back and I will take your husky ass to safety.”
“And then what happened?”
“Wrong question,” Dennis said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I learned to swim,” he laughed. “I’m right here in front of you so obviously I learned to swim. But what I never told anyone about was talking to that fucking catfish. It was really talking to me, you know?”
“Uh uh,” I said. “Right.”
“It was the Devil talking to me!”
“You mean, Jesus,” I said.
“Don’t tell me what I mean,” Dennis said. “It was the goddamn Devil. He turned himself into a giant catfsih and saved me so I could grow up and know some happiness and sadness in life before he royally fucked me over. The Devil is such a sick bastard.”
The mimosa tree by the side of the pool caught my attention as a hot summer breeze shook it. It’s weird pink flowers looking like something out of a science fiction movie. A cowbird was sitting in it like he was listening in on us and making that weird water dripping sound like they do.
Dennis told me to swim like a dog. He cupped his hands and told me to try it and, low and behold, he was right. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. Dennis told me to try it on the deep end side. He said he wouldn’t touch me or save me either because he didn’t want to waste a good beer. So I kind of pushed off into the deep end and I swam across like Mark Spitz. Okay, so it was really just a dog paddle but I did it by myself. I doggy paddled over to Dennis and he splashed me in the face but I didn’t let it bother me because I could save myself now.
“Good job, Killer,” Dennis finished his beer and crushed it in his hand before tossing it toward the trash can against the chainlink fence. It clattered near the trash can. “You want to hear something funny?”
“What is it?”
“I really don’t know how to swim,” he said.
“What?” I flipped my hair back and the excess water flew from it.
“No shit,” he said. “I’ve never been able to swim. I’m afraid of the water too, but I wanted to see you learn since it was eating you up so bad.”
“What the hell? What if I’d gone under? You mean I would have drowned?”
“You might of,” he said. “Yeah, I guess so.” He laughed and hauled himself out of the water. It dripped off him like a waterfall when he got out. I was speechless, but at the same time it was funny. I’d learned how to swim from someone who didn’t know the first thing about it. “I knew you could do it.”
“How did you know?”
“I’m just telling you what God knows,” he slipped his feet into flip flops and made off to his old Dodge pickup.
It was the last time I ever saw Dennis alive.
A couple of weeks later he was found floating in the Blue Star pool by an old couple who were staying overnight. My mom and aunt decided I needed Jesus and they sent me on a camping trip with the Royal Rangers at the Assemblies of God church so I was gone when it happened. We prayed away a retarded boy’s deaf and dumb spirit and a bunch of them boys spoke in tongues. I’d never heard anything like it, but I wanted to learn more about the Holy Ghost. Maybe I could learn how to walk on water next! We built a big bonfire and the preacher stood on the embers of the fire as he preached to us at night. Us boys kept thinking he might catch on fire so we couldn’t help but pay attention to all of his talk about Jesus coming back in the sky just in the nick of time to save us from the fiery death of Revelation. I heard all about Dennis when I came back. He was just floating in the pool as dead as could be they said. Some said it was suicide, but Linda and the barflies in Attica thought Bobby Ray and Boogie just made it look like an accident. The cops didn’t look into it because Dennis had a history of being on the bad side of the law. It was just like he said about the Devil coming back for him.
I snuck out of the room one night and sat down on a lounge chair looking into the black water. Nobody wanted to swim after what had happened and I couldn’t blame them either. The stars reflecting off the surface like a mirror for the universe. I wondered if maybe Dennis hadn’t just gotten too tight one night and went to talking to that giant catfish about life and how it wasn’t always so perfect. Maybe he took the Devil’s advice one too many times. I kept picturing him trying to learn to dog paddle in the deep end at midnight. The cowbirds making that dripping sound while he thrashed around. Him drowning and nobody hearing it over the loud music at the bar. Maybe we were alike and he had the same idea I’d had about slowing the world down underwater and breathing deep breaths of pure chlorine like holy water for the people who drove up and down Highway 54 looking for something they couldn’t quite name and never expecting to find the meanness that was just under the surface where you least expected it. I took out the pack of Kools and green Bic lighter I’d swiped from Dennis, smoked his last cigarette, and flicked the dead butt into the deep end. I figured it was the Devil called him home and I wondered if I wasn’t heading for the sort of fate. We were both afraid of the deep water and drawn to it at the same time.