Head under Water by Neil Serven

Head under Water by Neil Serven

If they liked you, they’d remember you. And every once in a while a kid pops back in to say hello. A little fuller in the face, a little more run-down. Out of the Army or Marines with erect posture, rounder head, clearer gaze. The women thicker in the hips, more sass, more sashay.

They shake hands with their old principal and say hey there, Mr. Rush, you’re lookin’ good, and they chat Edwin up, because they want to retrace things and show him they’re different people now, they talk a different game.

That’s how it happens in the building. Outside of school will always be someone else’s turf. At the Y, as though to harp on this point, children spill out of vans pulled up to the curb and disappear inside; toned men and women in tank tops meet Edwin’s glance with arch nods at the banana-yellow swim trunks and Coca-Cola beach towel folded over his arm. You don’t see them when they start out, dissatisfied and exposed and pale.

He’s a new member. His chalk-white sneakers give that away. They smelled like new upholstery out of the box. Cost an arm and a leg, but the savvy sales clerk, dressed like a referee, used the first-person plural to persuasive effect: a few extra dollars today buys us a few more years down the road, know what I’m saying? Do we have grandchildren, sir?

The kid might have been twenty. Not a Muskie kid.

*

Edwin found the ad for one-on-one swim instruction through Craigslist and thought he recognized the name Lee Caruthers. He could have sworn that she had graduated only a couple years ago, but as Lee told him over the phone, she was already in her first year of graduate school (marine biology, University of Maine), and before that, after finishing her undergrad at Dartmouth, she had spent two years on a research vessel in the Philippines (“about as far away as I could flee without getting on a spaceship,” she said), tracking the egg-laying patterns of bamboo sharks.

As she talked he pulled up her records on his office computer. National Honor Society, 3.8 GPA, led Edmund S. Muskie High School to the Maine Division 2 championship in 100-meter freestyle in her senior year. Lifeguard during the summer.

Her yearbook photo showed a serious-looking girl with red hair and large, dark green eyes. Pet peeves were “phony people” and “being late.”

But now the girl was all business: she didn’t ask about Edwin, nor the school. He would need to submit a form with the name of his doctor and an emergency contact. “It’ll be good to see you again, Mr. Rush,” was all she said before she hung up.

*

“Mr. Rush,” she says, removing her sunglasses and extending a hand. She is decked out in Maine blue and white, warm-up jacket and duffel bag. At some point, either a salon or chlorine has turned her into a blonde.

“Lee! Good to see you. Let’s make it Ed now.”

Her movements indicate a familiarity with the place. The squat building shows its age in the chocolate veneer, brown-tinted windows, and dust-orange brick. Board members get their names spelled out with plastic letters in a case, and the bulletin board advertises craft nights, yoga classes, and bands needing bass players. Ten-year-olds hog the game tables like they’re waiting for rides.

Lee leads them down metal stairs to a heavy door. Out pours a racket of splashes, voices, a whiff of chlorine. Edwin looks in and hesitates.

“I thought this was a private lesson.”

She leans against the door and frowns. “Looks like someone fucked up on their end. That’s nonprofit for you.”

He follows her down the path that separates the wading pool on the left, aswarm with toddlers and parents, from the Olympic-sized lake on the right, with black squiggles dividing the race lanes. Muskie holds its swim meets here, but Edwin’s never been to one. On the far side of the room a cluster of fully dressed teenagers congregates on the bleachers. A few of them look familiar, but these days, they all do.

*

He has already messed up once, forgetting to bring a combination lock. Lee had mentioned it on the phone. So she had to wait while he piled his keys and wallet into her small hand, then unlace and kick off his new shoes. “You get your share of douchebags sniffing around here, is all,” she told him. “They want cash and painkillers, so they raid your shit.”

Fearful of being caught naked, Edwin dresses with the urgency of a firefighter, the conditioned air pricking his skin.

Lee is on the bleachers when he emerges. She is wearing a trim one-piece, navy blue with white stripes down the sides, and sipping from a water bottle.

Without looking at Edwin she says, “Been a while since you’ve been in a pool?”

“It has.” Sitting next to her forces the loiterers behind him to look at his fat, naked back.

“Then let’s get the hard part over with.” Lee takes a final swig, stands, and, before approaching the pool, unfolds a white bathing cap. Bending to stretch it over her head, she allows Edwin a glimpse at the pale valley formed by the tops of her breasts.

She backsteps down the ladder. Edwin, following, takes the descent slowly. The water soaks his trunks. His foot searches for a third rung that isn’t there, until it finds the bottom.

The pool is warmer than he expected. He looks around for Lee but she’s already submerged, her form squiggling beneath the surface. When she pops up in front of him, she has molted into a new creature, bug-eyed and hairless.

“How’s it feel?”

“No sharks yet.”

But there’s the scenery, where other animals frolic. Kids horse around with a volleyball in the near corner, and a man with rocklike arms swims laps lengthwise. He wears goggles and a watch and checks his time with each lap. Edwin stands like a pedestrian on a traffic island, everyone else committed to their motions. “I want to go under,” he says.

He reaches to hold his nose, but Lee stops him. “Not like that! Okay, first lesson. You want to keep both hands free in case you need to bring yourself back up. Slow, deep breath, then when you’re under you can exhale if you need to. Watch me.”

She lowers herself into the water. Beneath, her face tightens; bubbles bloop from her mouth. She pops back up.

Edwin says, “Easy, right?”

Lee counts off. At three, Edwin draws a shallow breath, then squats. The queer warmth pours over his scalp, behind his ears; the shallow feeling in his chest panics him and he opens his eyes. Headless bodies paddle in the blue light. His arms thrash, he catches Lee, who grabs him as he brings his head up.

“Whoa! All right there, Ed?”

He finds his breath. “Lee…Jesus…I’m sorry.”

He tries to parlay his cough into a laugh. The bleacher kids are looking at him. “Gets easier after the first day, right?” he says to Lee, who shrugs and dips back under.

*

“Lee Caruthers,” his daughter says. “I remember her.”

They are in the windowless eat-in kitchen of her condo. Edwin does the Sunday crossword at the table while Carolyn stands at the counter, breading chicken strips.

“You went to different schools.”

“I still knew who she was. I had friends who went to Muskie. She was a redhead.”

“She’s not anymore.”

“She worked at Old Orchard Beach. A little manic. Wackadoodle in that way guys like. The rumor was she gave out blow jobs in the surfhouse.”

Edwin is startled by the image he allows himself to conjure: Lee’s checks puffed out, eyes looking up for approval. “You’re making this up.”

“It was high school. Rumors get started up all the time. A bit of a perplexing choice, though, to think your old students are fair game for swimming lessons.”

“Not perplexing when my granddaughter can already swim halfway across Saco Bay, and I have to stand like an ass on the shoreline watching her.”

“Those are good intentions, Dad, just not very realistic. Dr. Orson’s on board with this?”

“He’s the one who told me to start exercising.”

“It’s not exercise, Dad. It’s a stress test. It’s a radical change in your lifestyle. It’s a push to ask a 66-year-old body to suddenly learn how to keep itself afloat.”

“It’s managing fine so far.”

Carolyn looks at him. The chicken now in the oven, she draws a chair across from Edwin, who pretends to focus on the puzzle as he senses a shadow creeping over.

“And Lee Caruthers, Dad? Really?”

“Why not her?”

“Tell me it’s not awkward.”

“Why would it be?”

“Abby’s day camp has adult swim classes in the off-season. I bet the instructors there are hot young pieces of ass, too.”

He feels his face flush.

*

Most mornings, he doesn’t leave his office until the late bell rings, the slamming of lockers ceases, and stragglers are urged along into classrooms. Walking among the students is like trying to board a moving train; their nimble steps, and the arcs they take to avoid him, remind him they know the place better than he does.

When Orson asked him what he did to stay active, Edwin replied with the exaggeration that he walked up and down municipal stairs five days a week. In reality, Edwin has less to do during the day than he once did. After the news has been read, email answered, phone calls to the superintendent returned, purchase orders signed, curriculum meetings pushed back, and discipline reports run down, the rest of the day is his. No more panicky phone calls from Gracie or breathless questions from the home health aides; no midday pharmacy pickups or chemo runs.

The new space started off vast and white, only to fill with debris. “Classic widower thing,” was what Orson called it. Then the specifics, like a dart in the neck: “You bury yourself in your work because it’s the only thing that isn’t all topsy-turvy. The house is too quiet, it’s scary, so you work longer hours. You settle for a can of soup at your desk and takeout in front of the TV at night. You look at pornography on the Internet. You close off the rooms you don’t use. Junk piles up on the dining room table and no one’s there to tell you you’re doing it wrong.”

Orson prescribed Edwin a mild antidepressant.

His route takes him through the foyer, past the trophy cases with black-and-white photos of basketball teams from decades ago, gaunt boys in tank tops and short shorts and hairstyles that have come back into vogue. Slowing his gait lets him peek into classrooms at students with their legs like tree limbs sticking out from under their desks. They are such adults now, the weights they bear. He can’t remember them being so tall—the women, too. They look him in the eye and stare him down. He knows of at least a half-dozen who live on their own, orphans. Runaways, squatters, too lost-cause for the state. They lure in their friends. Others raise younger siblings, or their own children, or take care of ill parents. Then, beyond his reach, the bullies, the stalker exes, the rumpus-room rapes—at least the ones that float out from the gossip mill because the police tell him nothing, as they are more concerned with what they can prepare for: psychotics slipping in and shooting the place apart. Lately, these thick men with shaved heads and army boots have been showing up at School Committee meetings asking why teachers aren’t allowed to carry. If they’re going to protect our children, they should have the right tools. To which Edwin thinks: if only they knew the height of the fall that would require, the impossible drop of reason that takes you from helping a kid over the hurdles of trigonometry to fearing he’ll come back to finish you off.

He has had his lawn torched, his tires slashed. His phone number is unlisted, but every now and then, a drunk parent will call to holler insults into his ear. After Gracie died, they called with insinuations: Let’s be fair, Mr. Rush, you’ve been distracted. Back in his teaching days, they harassed his daughter at her private school, two towns away, when he flunked one of Muskie’s football stars off the team. The boy’s friends. Carolyn pinned against her locker, thumbs pressed into her arms. He has seen a kid upset about a breakup try to cut off her own middle finger with an X-Acto knife so she could mail it to the boy. You cannot count on rationality to protect you from hazard, but still: putting your own hide first means blocking out the people who need you, which goes against everything the job sets you up for. There have been no suicides on his watch yet. Edwin takes this as a point of pride.

End of the hall, up the stairs. The doors bump behind him. An ache straps his thighs. His shoes scrape the steps.

The place has changed. A debt exclusion opened up funding to convert the library into a full-fledged media center, but it has already sunk into obsolescence—kids don’t have much use for the terminals with Twitter and Skype locked and, in any event, they all have phones, where the real conversation always seems to be. Irony has tainted the food, the sincerity wrung from their sentences, but get them to pass a test and the governor will find the cash to put it a weight room. After food service got privatized by the district, they reworked the menu to include gluten-free and soy options; now there’s stuff on there Edwin doesn’t want to touch: edamame hummus, chorizo paninis, something called quinoa, which he doesn’t know how to pronounce. He can’t even keep a jar of peanuts in his desk anymore. What used to be the language lab is now a daycare center. Edwin never goes in there.

Third floor. His chest feels the pressure; his legs are weak. Biology classes are up here, and though the doors are closed, the formaldehyde hits with a wallop. Dissections are underway: worms and frogs. He wants to look in at the goings-on but needs to stop and balance himself. Someone has turned off the air. A bit of nausea arises.

“Ed? You all right?” The voice belongs to Les Menelakis, one of the biology teachers. A stronger whiff of formaldehyde follows Les out the room, and before he can answer,
Edwin vomits on the floor. “Ah, Jesus,” says Les.

“I’ll be okay,” Edwin says between breaths. “Strong stuff you got in there.”

“It’s basic solution, what we always use.” Edwin sees Les as a bully held up by his Mediterranean constitution and holy empire of a family. The town has a Menelakis on every block: every committee, every sports league, every law office and ethnic restaurant. What knowledge of the natural world Les has comes mostly from his producing eight children with three different wives. He asks, “Did you run up here or something?”

Edwin only says, “I’m fine now. Sorry you had to see that,” and goes to find Schultz to clean up the mess.

*

The next Saturday, he shows up at the Y early, but Lee is late. Same faces from last week; a few more nods.

Out of the locker room, he has trouble locating Lee because she’s wearing a different suit, a lime green backless number that reveals faint tan lines on her back and shoulders. It gets glances from the bleachers.

“We have an audience again,” Edwin says.

“Fish don’t get the sea to themselves. Grab a kickboard.”

The water still carries a shock. He remembers to dip his head under. Lee glistens in front of him. Drops slide down her chest. She says, “What’s wrong?”

He tells her, “We’ve got rubberneckers.”

“They’re not looking at you.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

“It bothered me until I was fourteen, when I realized it would never stop. At least these are kids. Worse are the fathers who hang around to watch, then keep you in a conversation for twenty minutes while you’re standing there in wet clothes instead of going home to their wives. I say fuck ‘em, let ‘em be miserable. Ready?”

Lee leads them toward an open area. “First thing to remember, keep your shoulders and elbows square with the board. Let that do the work, then let your legs come up behind you.”

Following her instructions, he lifts off his feet. The loss of control makes him laugh. His chin dips into the water.

Lee says, “Now kick! Like something’s got your ankle and you’re trying to shake it off.”

He fears propelling his foot into the back of someone’s head, but after a few attempts, he gains enough momentum to stay horizontal for half a minute.

But his legs tire easily. Lee offers her water bottle. A kid leaps from the platform and executes a cannonball over Edwin’s head. Water splashes into their eyes.

“Want to sit out for a bit?” asks Lee, once the foam settles.

“No. Not now.”

“You sure?”

“Let’s do this.”

“Okay. I want to try something. For this, I’ll need your help.”

Lee takes Edwin’s hand and guides him to the deep end. His educator’s instincts alert him to the risk. Down the slope, the water rises until it stops at his armpits; Lee’s in up to her chin.

“Should I have a belt?” he asks.

“Not a fan of ‘em. Try it without, okay? Just trust me?”

Lee’s wet hands move Edwin’s head back so he’s looking at the ceiling. It reminds him of the barbershop.

“Spread your arms out. Look up and let go.”

Her arm wraps around his waist while the other comes like a bar across the backs of his legs. His weight shifts in the water. His knees break the surface, then his toes. His head wants to roll back.

“Okay. Let go. I’ve got you. Let go.”

“Jesus, Lee, you’re going to hurt yourself!”

“Relax! I’ve got you!”

Her head comes into his view. Edwin feels his body flatten out. His stomach and hips rise, then his shoulders. The ceiling is a waffle grid interrupted by fluorescent light tubes.

“Still got me?”

“Not me. The water’s doing the work.”

“Thought I was going to crush you for a minute there.”

Looking up to her face, he feels like a patient enamored of his nurse. The water rocks him gently. As his head brushes the crook of her wet arm, it occurs to him how long it’s been since he sniffed a human face this close—the fold of the ear, the flaring of the nostril. He settles as if into a net, enjoying the rhythm of her breathing.

The approach of running steps interrupts the moment. Taking off from the platform, out of the corner of Edwin’s eye, is the same little shit from before. This time, Edwin’s body is the hurdle.

With her back to the wall, Lee is more startled than Edwin. Her arms give, he tenses and folds, and the floor isn’t there to meet him. He tries to clutch for something, but all that’s there is Lee; his fingers seize the snug neoprene strap that goes over her shoulder. He pulls too hard and a breast pops free.

Her shriek fills the hangar. Everyone throws looks their way.

“Ed! Whoa! Okay!”

His thrashing stops when he feels her arm on his. But to guide them back to the shallow end, she must leave herself uncovered. People fake casualness in their glances; a few stare. As the incline inches up, Edwin finds his feet.

“I need you to shield me,” Lee says, and he does this by essentially pinning the girl between himself and the pool wall. Her boobs jiggle as she fixes herself. Edwin tries not to look, but has already looked, and when her hip grazes the front of his trunks, he finds himself aroused for the first time in years.

In a cracked voice, she says, “Fucking oglers.”

“God, Lee, I’m sorry.”

“Not you. Them.”

“Boys will be boys.”

He hopes, as she turns away, that she was too caught up in her own humiliation to have noticed anything, until she turns back and says, “Speaking of which. You might want to walk that off.”

*

After showering, Edwin assumes he’s seen the last of Lee for good, but then she is outside the locker room, her hair in glossy strands, twirling her keys and inviting him to join her at Starbucks. They go in her Toyota. The store is mostly empty, amplified folk music filling the space. They grab a tall table by the window.

“You ought to be proud of yourself,” Lee says after taking a sip.

“For what?”

“For what, he says. Floating? On your first try? That is a huge accomplishment. Once the body learns buoyancy, everything else falls into place. You were up for a whole thirty seconds! People were watching you.”

Here comes the conversation back to business. His check covered four lessons. They have one to go and Edwin had planned to sign up for more. He had feared, after his breach of propriety, that she would refund the last payment and tell him he’d need to find another coach. Now her after-school smile, giving nothing away, has him wondering if he’s unlocked something. Reading women: it is a skill long rusted shut.

“Hey,” he tries. “I’ve got to apologize again for what happened back there.”

“Oh god, why? That wasn’t your fault. That little shit could have hurt someone. He broke the rules; I hope they kicked him out.”

“There’s that, and other things.”

A chuckle comes up as she sips from her straw. “I wasn’t going to bring that up. Yeah, that wasn’t what I expected this morning, I’ll admit. But let’s be honest: that wasn’t your fault, either.”

“I don’t want you to think I have intentions.”

Her eyes roll down. A blush tinges her cheek. “Okay. You don’t have intentions. Until now, Ed, it hadn’t crossed my mind that you would.”

She is playing with her straw, not looking at him.

“I should let you go home so you can take care of things,” she says. “Or you could use the bathroom here, but I think you have to ask for the key.”

“Lee.”

His shin feels the kick of her shoe.

“I’m teasing,” she says. “If we can’t laugh about this, then we won’t put it past us.”

“It’s just—it’s been a long time, I guess.”

More than the contact of flesh, though. He means watching her tics, her flares—the kind of things he’d observe as Gracie would knit in front of the television, or go over depositions in bed. The thought came as he watched Lee maneuver her car through downtown Saco, steering the wheel with her knee as she dug around for her sunglasses, sighing impatience with a delivery van parked in the street with its hazards on, the odor of chlorine still lingering on both of them.

She lowers her voice. “You’re not the first guy to do it in my presence, if that makes you feel better. Though I will say you’re probably the oldest. I imagine in your case it’s harder to control. You spend your day surrounded by teenagers, right? All that unbridled sexuality, I mean, it’s in front of you.”

“It’s really not like that.”

“What I’m saying is, I’m not offended. It’s natural, it happens. Don’t apologize as though it didn’t feel good, because that would piss me off.”

“I—”

“I mean, Brad gets them in his sleep. It’s like he never left puberty.”

His ear trips over the name. The cappuccino machine fires up across the room, making it harder to hear, but Lee keeps going.

“What am I supposed to do? I’m not giving into that shit. You wanted us to become the person we want to be, not the person others expect us to be, right? You wrote that in our yearbooks. I went back and looked the other day. Because I’ve become exactly who I want to be.” Her left hand comes down on top of his, causing a stirrer to fall to the floor. A rock glints on her finger. “I’m flattered, Mr. Rush, but the market’s closed.”

*

On Monday, during his walk, Edwin hears murmurs from a classroom that is supposed to be empty. The frosted glass door is closed. He opens it to find a boy on top of a girl on the teacher’s desk. Two faces look up at him, one upside-down.

The boy is Jared Duncan, a sophomore. One of the manic-depressive skate urchins, a category in which Muskie ranks high, and a regular in detention for petty vandalism and mouthing off. Offhand, Edwin doesn’t know the girl.

“Mr. Rush!” sings Duncan. Propped on his arms, he makes no effort to move, pinning the girl beneath him. Her pushed-up T-shirt exposes her breasts to the daylight. It’s as though Duncan expects Edwin to leave so they can finish.

“Mr. Duncan, and who’s that with you?”

The girl’s black hair is fanned out on the desk. She whispers, “Jared, get off me.”

“Mr. Duncan, let the girl get dressed, for Christ’s sake.”

But Edwin makes no offer to turn around, which gives them no privacy. The separation of their bodies reveals more: Duncan’s skinny white ass; the rank odor of sex; the girl’s skirt bunched around her waist.

Duncan makes a show of putting his clothes back on. His jeans slink down his hips. The girl hides her face from Edwin as she fixes herself.

When she finishes, Edwin says, “What’s your name, Miss?”

“You don’t know?” goads Duncan.

“Beth Wynorski.” She is crying.

“What year are you, Miss Wynorski?”

“Sophomore.”

“Mr. Rush, you know, we didn’t mean no harm. We were s’posed to be in study hall, you know, and the teacher wasn’t there—”

“Enough, Mr. Duncan. Suspended until further notice. Get your things and leave the premises at once.”

“Seriously? That’s bullshit! We was only doing—”

“Get lost, Jared.”

The boy leaves. Lockers are punched, doors slammed, as a trail of fucks and cunts fades down the hall. Edwin, with slow steps, comes around the desk to meet the girl. Her face is pink; her small nose runs.

“Are you okay?” he asks. She nods. “This is embarrassing for both of us, isn’t it?”

“I guess.”

While her head is down, he scans her for discoloration in the common places—neck, jawline, wrists.

“I’d like to ask how you ended up with a winner like that one,” he says, “but that’s not my business. Without knowing you, I’d say you could do better.”

The girl, perhaps not keen on being judged, fixes her eyes back on Edwin. He so rarely talks to the students anymore that the art of lecture eludes him. Something sparks a wish to cheer the girl up.

The girl brings up her black men’s shoes to sit cross-legged on the edge of the desk. “I’d love to know what it’s like to have such nerve,” Edwin says. “Was this his idea or yours?”

The part dividing her hair shows light-brown roots. When she declines to answer, he presses forward. “Would it have been worth it if you hadn’t been caught? If nobody had found out?”

She squints her eyes. “I’m not a slut.”

“I don’t think you are. But your friend back there is going to make sure people find out, and then it won’t be your call anymore. A rotten deal for you, but that’s the way it is with boys. It’s all about scoring points. It’s an obsession.”

He is digging back to every educator’s seminar he has attended on bullying and relationship abuse, pleased with how much he remembers.

“Why would you do something like this, just to please someone else?”

The girl’s face doesn’t give away if she follows. If there is a next line, Edwin doesn’t remember it, so he has to improvise.

“Tell me, Beth. Can you swim? Are you a good swimmer?”

Her eyebrows knit, perplexed. “Sure.”

“When did you learn?”

“When I was like, two, maybe? Real young.”

“Too young to know you were supposed to be scared.”

“I guess.”

“See, I’m just now learning. You know how hard it is to learn to swim when you’re as old as me? You think of everything that can go wrong, everything about yourself that isn’t fit for the task. And then you’re supposed to forget all of it.”

“You just have to practice,” she says.

“That’s all it takes, right?” He has almost forgotten he has a job to do. “Per the administrative code of the Saco Public Schools, what you and Mr. Duncan have done is grounds for expulsion, but I can’t make any promises. You’re suspended until further notice. Go get your things.”

*

“Duncan, the little shit!” McKinnon says. “Ten points for stones.”

“Do we know the girl?”

“Wynorski. Yeah. One of those depressed spinsters from the art room. Honestly, I can’t believe she had it in her.”

They are in Edwin’s office. As senior vice principal, McKinnon is in charge of discipline, enjoying the visibility that Edwin forfeits. He can’t wait for the old man to retire.

“I think we know who did the persuading here,” says Edwin. “Not that it matters.” It occurs to him he should have Schultz wipe down the desk.

“I didn’t lose mine until I was eighteen,” McKinnon says. “My buddy’s big sister. Before the army. I had known her since I was five years old and she told me there was no way she would let me ship off a virgin.”

Edwin waits him out. He’s heard the story before.

“You know, in case I didn’t make it back.”

“But you did.”

“My point is, I was lucky enough to be with someone who knew what she was doing. Guys like Duncan, they put on this trust-me-I’m-a-doctor bullshit, and they go and ruin it for themselves.”

“I gave them both indefinite suspensions,” Edwin says. “We need to call their parents, then admin.”

“Plenty of time to finish what they started.”

“I don’t care. I just wanted them out of my sight.”

“I’ll make the calls at lunch.” McKinnon, instead of getting up, helps himself to a butterscotch from Edwin’s bowl. Working the wrapper in his fingers, he says, “So I hear you’re a tadpole now.”

He hasn’t told anyone on the staff. He tries to remember what Carolyn said about rumors.

“My coach says I’m making great progress. I can float now.”

“Your coach. A little Muskie pride, did I hear that right? She was a piece.”

“Christ, Don. You’re lucky we’re friends.”

“No, hey, I’m jealous, I admit. Let’s be honest. They come here to be noticed, but we’re just part of the furniture, right? And we want to keep our jobs. Then by the time they’re old enough to have anything interesting to say, they leave.” McKinnon clicks the candy against his teeth. “They’re not supposed to come back, Ed. You got one that came back.”

*

Beth Wynorski’s locker is on the third floor, near where Edwin threw up last week. The hall still smells of formaldehyde.

Late afternoons, with the building all but empty, he allows himself a look around. The lockers have built-in locks and some time ago, he blackmailed Schultz for the combinations. The district has laid out clear mandates for searches: reasonable suspicion of danger or contraband, can’t be a hunch, and both the student and a third-party witness have to be present.

But it’s his job to keep these kids safe, and there is nothing wrong with some fieldwork toward that end. For all the energy they spend on being coy, the social media posturing, when you ask them a straightforward question, they refuse to talk to you. They want to be found out.

It’s rare he finds anything good. Weapons are of no use stashed away, and marijuana doesn’t last long enough to get found; the dopes keep it close and smoke it in the afternoon before their parents come home. Pills are what’s in now, smiley faces, cocktails of antidepressants chased with cough medicine, or things like furniture polish for the freaks who get off on damage. Cheap and easy to find, no shady middle man.

He checks that the coast is clear and tries the combination. As the door pops, a cylinder of lip gloss falls out and rolls across the floor. He quickly retrieves it.

He scans the interior. For a Goth artist-type, Beth Wynorski’s locker is disappointingly functional. She has friends: photographs taped inside the door show them lounging together in swimsuits. In others, she’s wrapped in the skinny white arms of Jared Duncan. She looks genuinely happy, her head nuzzled against his, but Duncan’s jaw is hardened in all of them. Books are piled in haphazardly, with a sweatshirt folded on top; a hairbrush underneath is the reason they don’t lay flat. A black-and-white composition book sticks out from the stack. Edwin pulls it out and leafs through it. It is a diary, or at least it was. The ambitious five-page entries from September become leaner as the year progresses, giving way to maudlin poetry and colored-pencil anime.

This is the same girl who cut class to fuck on city-owned hardwood in the light of day. After all these years, the virgins look no different from the whores. Some of the faces look softer than the rest when they arrive as ninth graders with eyes scanning the neoclassical architecture and thumbs hooked into their nylon backpacks. The glaze-over happens to some more quickly than others but, by routine, is complete by spring, once they have settled into their cliques and come to realize whether they are on a track to win or lose, to use or be used.

What Lee did in the surfhouse, then: probably true. Adulthood happens when you hide your bones and move on.

Footsteps down the hall. Schultz, he thinks at first, but then come voices: boys and a girl. In goes the journal but before he can close the door the lip gloss escapes and skitters across the floor again. He slams the door and hurries to retrieve the tube, pocketing it just as the group rounds the corner.

“Awfully late to be hanging around here, don’t you think, folks?” he says, before seeing who they are. Leading the way is Jared Duncan. Behind him is the girl whose lip gloss sits in his pocket. They’re joined by two other skaters from Duncan’s entourage.

“Mr. Rush,” says Duncan. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Likewise, Mr. Duncan. Did you forget you’re under suspension?” Edwin’s first thought: the kid has returned to settle a score. The men with the shaved heads were right. After hours, no guards—anyone can walk in.

“Yeah, that’s why we waited,” says the boy. The grin absent from the photos reappears; the kid’s an entertainer when he’s cornered. “Beth needed something from her locker. We figured it’d be okay.”

“Four people to retrieve something from a locker?” says Edwin. “You and Miss Wynorski are trespassing. I could get the police involved.”

Beth says, “We were only going to be a minute. I forgot something.” Her manner with Edwin is direct; by placing his confidence in her that morning, he has given her a leg up.

“All right,” he says. “Make it quick.”

She’s not coming back for lip gloss, Edwin thinks. He stands aside, folds his arms, and assumes the posture of a guard. When Beth opens the locker,  the diary slides out and falls to the floor. It had been underneath another book when he was in there. Kids: dumb as blocks about some things, so frighteningly on spot about others.

Beth picks up the notebook and looks at it as though she doesn’t know where it came from, then jams it back into the locker. Duncan paces behind her nervously.

“Beth, let’s go.”

She is searching the pockets of the sweatshirt. “It’s not here, Jared.”

“Then where the fuck is it?”

“Watch yourself, Jared,” Edwin says.

“I don’t know! This was the only place it could be. I swear Gabby’s been going through my stuff.”

“Time to wrap this up, Miss Wynorski,” Edwin says. She shakes open the sweatshirt and throws it over her shoulders, taking a moment to fish through the pockets once more. She looks at Edwin for a moment before shutting the door.

“I knew we were wastin’ our time,” Duncan says.

“I swear it was in here.”

“Let’s go, folks,” Edwin says.

He directs them to the stairwell and follows them down, sneakers scratching on the steps. He keep one hand on the lip gloss in his pocket as the group moves toward the exit door. They murmur a goodbye and emerge into the sunlight, where their strides quicken.

As Edwin holds the door, one of the other boys turns and says, “Yo, hey, Mr. Rush.”

“Yeah?”

“Almost forgot. I saw you at the Y the other day.”

“That so?”

“Yeah, at the pool.” He cracks a grin at Edwin. “And I just wanted to tell you, you are doing a very nice job.”

The kid flashes a mock thumbs-up, and the other students, along with Beth, explode into laughter.

*

Lee calls on a Thursday, in the middle of Wheel of Fortune, when the windows are open and Carolyn is at her night class and Edwin is babysitting Abigail.

“Did you see the forecast for Saturday?” Lee with her mouth full, like she’s rolling around a lollipop.

“Low eighties and sunny. We can skip swimming if you’ve got better plans.”

“I was thinking you could swim here. Our complex has a pool. They just opened it for the season. Bring your daughter and granddaughter. We’ll light the grill. It’ll be outstanding.”

He looks at Abigail, rolling around in front of the TV. A week into summer vacation, he has been working on a new tune. The house is clean. He cooked a real dinner for himself and his granddaughter, something other than hot dogs in the microwave, and she ate it without a fuss. He donated the rest of Gracie’s clothes to the Salvation Army and reclaimed her study as a reading room. The bar is restocked. He had been thinking about inviting Lee over.

“I bet they’d be very impressed by your progress,” she sings.

She isn’t kidding. After ten weeks, he can cross the length of the pool and back without a board. Everything is lighter: he is back to his pre-Gracie weight of 214 pounds, still overweight according to the BMI metric, but still an accomplishment to be celebrated, Orson said, and he has been dying to share this news with someone who didn’t receive a $25 copay for the pleasure.

He wonders how he can finagle this. “They would,” he says. He decides to lie. “But they’ll be away for the weekend.”

“That’s too bad. Promise you’ll still come, though. Brad’ll be here, maybe some folks from the complex, but it won’t be anywhere near as annoying as the Y, I swear.”

Lee then adds, less enthused, “You don’t even have to swim, Ed, if that’s the problem.” He asks what he can bring.

*

The complex is a sprawling hillside of brick-faced townhouses. The roads curve to manage the slope, and although there are signs, the streets are all named after flowers and Edwin gets lost. He’s bailed out when he spots Lee’s Toyota. A silver Lexus owns the space next to hers. He has brought his trunks and two six-packs of what he hopes is the kind of hip beer that sends the message that he’s ready for some adult fun.

The door to number 63 is open, but Edwin rings the bell. He hears Lee say “There he is” through an upstairs window. Brad comes down to let him in.

Without shoes, Brad is short; he is also tan and muscular, and much older than Lee. His shaved head makes his black wire-rims stand out on his face. Edwin, for some reason, thinks of a peanut.

“Lee’s upstairs changing,” he says. “There’s a downstairs bathroom if you want to change too.”

When Edwin emerges, Lee is in the kitchen wearing a man’s white shirt, unbuttoned in the front, and underneath, he can identify the third swimsuit in her repertoire, a candy-apple-red two-piece. The ensemble leaves little to the imagination, especially up top, and he almost backs into a bulletin board dotted with appointment cards and takeout menus when its wearer approaches with a hug. Her skin is warm and lotion-slick and he tries, in that half-second, to breathe her in. “Look who’s here!” she says. “Fella didn’t have a better offer.”

The walk to the pool takes them past the tennis and basketball courts. Two women, Bridget and Sylvia, lounge poolside. Even with sunglasses blocking her face, Edwin can see that Bridget is Brad’s twin, and is about to note this when Sylvia cuts in, “Lee has told us so much about you.”

“Not everything. Just enough to make you interesting,” says Lee.

“She said you’ve been taking her swimming lessons. That is just so refreshing. More people our age should be trying new things.”

Our age? At first glance, Edwin might have ten years on this woman, easy. She is sipping a strawberry daiquiri from a straw, and judging by her outfit—capris and a long-sleeve floral print draped over a T-shirt with Aruba written in blue script—has no plans to try the pool.

Bridget offers her seat. Out of the corner of his eye, Edwin spies Lee removing her shirt. With room to work, she eschews the steps and executes a tight-arced dive into the deep end. Her ass shimmers beneath the ripples. Bridget, in a black bikini, follows her in.

Across the table, Sylvia says, “Remind me what you do, Ed.”

“High-school principal.”

“That’s it. At Muskie, right?”

He nods. “Lee was one of my students back in the day.”

“I’ll be damned! Bet you get to travel a lot with all those summers off, huh?”

He shakes his head. Everyone assumes an educator’s summers are wide open. Summers are only vacations for the kids, he explains; his are spent reworking curriculums and begging the School Committee to keep the last shreds of art and music around.

“I’m not much of a traveler,” he says absently, as the two younger women crisscross the pool. “My wife and I, when she was alive, used to drive up to Nova Scotia about once a year.” Nine hours in the car, Edwin fine with driving the whole length while Gracie read her true crime novels in the passenger seat, shelling pistachios with one hand, content in the silence and scenery.

“Get to Florida at all?”

“Not in a long time.”

“Caribbean?”

He shakes his head.

“I don’t see the point of having all that time off, then,” Sylvia says. “Take my advice, don’t wait until you’re retired to start seeing the world. It’s so easy to get complacent! You’ve got all this free time and think it’ll be there forever.”

Again with the assumptions. “So you’re retired, Sylvia,” he says. “What did you do?”

She regards him perplexedly through her brown lenses. They are like root-beer bottles. “My husband owned ski resorts. He’s the one who worked. The only traveling he ever did was to go to other ski resorts. Then he skied into a tree and—” She claps her hands. “That was it.”

Lee and Bridget resurface at the near end. By their look, he senses they are conspiring on a joke. Sylvia slurps her daiquiri and murmurs, “That went by too fast.”

Edwin asks, “How’s the water?”

“Wonderful,” says Lee. “You coming in?”

“I think you’ve persuaded me.”

Sylvia says, “Don’t let me stop you, young man.”

He removes his T-shirt, ambles over to the edge, and lowers himself in. His first shock: this water is not warm. It feels slimier than the Y.

One improvement, though: aside from Lee and Bridget, this ocean is all his. He feels like an explorer. He dips his head under the surface.

In two and a half months, he has lost twenty-nine pounds. Buoyancy comes naturally now. Up go the legs like on wires. His feet, relaxed as flippers, propel him across the water. He turns onto his back. The sky over the townhouse roofs is a truer blue than the pool. Can Lee see him? Can Sylvia? If he were to keep going—into the deep end, the river, the sea—would anyone stop him?

*

Maine weather is fickle, though. Within the hour, a continent of clouds darkens the sky. The air crisps. Edwin ducks inside to use the bathroom. Seeing the door closed, he tries the upstairs master bath, clean and decked out in pink and beige with candles smelling of nutmeg. As he airs out his trunks, the fan blows on him from above and the terrycloth bathmat tickles his feet.

Naked, he allows himself a look around. Other people’s houses fascinate him, the accumulation of years of decisions. He pulls back the shower curtain. Water still beads on the tile: Lee must have showered just before he arrived. The image stirs a bit of a hard-on. Since sprouting that underwater miracle a few weeks ago, they have come back with alarming frequency; now all it takes is a fleeting thought—or, as he discovered a couple of hours ago, a hug.

He leaves the faucet on, so as not to be heard rummaging around. He opens the medicine cabinet. A tin of Band-Aids tumbles into the sink. He curses himself, fishes out the wet packets, and replaces them in the tin. He notes the rest of the contents: battery-operated toothbrushes, shaving products, hair pins, lipsticks, an asthma inhaler. Orange prescription bottles on the bottom shelf. Edwin turns each one, squints at the laser-jet capitals: Percocet for Brad (only one left), and lithium capsules, extended release, for Lee. Half the kids at Muskie have prescriptions for the same stuff on file. He never would have guessed. We’re all dark freaks, as it turns out.

The clamshell is there, too. Edwin pops it open, counts eighteen of Lee’s pills gone, three white left before the week of red begins. He replaces the package, closes the cabinet, turns off the faucet, dresses.

Lee is at the bottom of the stairs. “What do you think?”

“It’s quite the place.”

“You know what I mean.”

“It took me a moment to catch on.”

She lowers her voice. “She’s a sweet woman, Ed. A little mouthy, I know, but that just means she’s interested. She’s been to a lot of places and has a lot of stories to tell.”

“And you want me to hear all of them.”

She pokes him in the chest. “And she’d like to hear yours! Didn’t you hear her? And she can still go for a roll. I know this for a fact.”

Edwin sees the water droplets clinging to Lee’s shoulders, sliding down into her top. If he backed her into the wall right now, planted his mouth on hers, would she push him away? Why else is he here?

Lee drops to a whisper. “And after that, if you still want to get your eyefuls, then I guess you’ve got it made. Because, Mr. Rush, you’re past the age when anyone can expect you to change, so we can only be happy for you that the wire still sparks.”

*

Outside, the rain holds off and the party goes on. Kielbasa on the grill, potato salad, sangria in cups while Edwin grabs a beer from the cooler. He plays along.

“Can I get you anything, Sylvia?”

“Look at you. The gentleman asking me if I want anything. No, thank you very much. I love my son but learned long ago not to trust anything he cooks.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Instead, Sylvia lights a cigarette. The smoke blows toward Edwin. “You have to tell me, Ed, what Lee was like in high school. I’ll bet she was one of your favorites.”

“The worst kind of troublemaker,” he says loud enough for the whole party to hear.

“I was,” Lee says, eyes at Edwin. “You couldn’t keep me down.”

“In my office every week. The headaches. The police calls, the arson squad.”

“The knife fights. People getting’ in my shit.”

“I knew it!” Sylvia says.

He is on-air, getting these laughs. “And honestly, I can’t say six years have changed her any, from what I’ve seen. No respect, no discipline, no sexual morals, just an utter lost cause.”

When Lee looks away, and no one follows up, Edwin wonders if he’s gone too far. Later, turning her back toward the others, Sylvia leans over the table toward Edwin. The legs of her Capris ride up to reveal her varicose veins. Her breath stinks of ash as she cups her mouth to project a whisper. “Lost cause is spot-on with that one. Honestly, I can’t believe a juicy peach like her wants to settle down already. With my Bradley? Tell me a chick without her debts would be so urgent.”

“That’s a pretty bold accusation. They seem happy.”

“I speak from experience. My husband was operating a successful business when we started dating. I became his little snow bunny. Lee’s doing the same thing, only where I worked the mountains, she works the sea.”

“I’m not following you.”

“This Little Mermaid act.” Her face has scrunched up like a washcloth. “You realize, Ed, this is how she gets off. She’ll rub her tail up against any man who doesn’t pose a threat, just because she can. Then one gets too close and it’s not funny anymore and she swims back to my son, oh, sorry, I’m spoken for. Forgive me for bursting your balloon, I’m sure you’re a genuine fellow in your wise years, but why would you ever think you had a chance with her?”

Edwin’s gut hollows. Looking across the way at Lee, who is leaning over to whisper something to Brad, he brings his beer to his lips and doesn’t put it down until the bottle is empty. A belch comes back quickly.

“Charming, sailor,” says Sylvia.

For a while, the only sound is the hum of the pool filter. Then Edwin says to Sylvia, “You know, you’re quite a wreck. What happens when you get wet?”

“I’ve known a lot of deluded men. They get knee replacements, they buy boats when they’ve never learned to sail. I hunt them for sport. It’s easy; they don’t run fast.”

Edwin rises from his chair. The sun at some point has re-emerged; the warm cement scrapes his soles. With everyone digging in, paper plates on laps, nobody other than Sylvia sees Edwin walk back to the corner near the gate.

Before he can dissuade himself, he breaks into the fastest sprint the space allows. Air billows through his shirt. He tries to spring off the lip but only catches it with his toes. In midair he brings up his knees, but his momentum pivots him forward more than he intends. His knees hit the water first, his face second.

If he blacks out, it is only for a moment. Once above the surface, he sees the havoc he has wreaked: drinks knocked over; food soggy and ruined; everyone soaked to the bone. Lee’s face is stone-hard with rage. Sylvia’s doused cigarette bobs up and down in her lips as she asks if he’s out of his godforsaken mind.

He feels like a plane crash survivor; in exhilaration, he spreads out his arms and swims toward the deep end. The weight of his clothes wants to bring him down, but the body naturally resists such danger, and over on his back he turns, laughing, his face warmed by the sun.



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