Swimming the Purgatoire

By James Seals

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said,

‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

 —JOHN 7:38

 

J FINAL.webim hurled me into the pool. He cupped my armpits, lifted me to his eye level then chucked me over his left shoulder. Jim watched me fly through the air. He had thrown me with apparent ease, except that he had grunted like those Scotsmen—with their green and red or blue and gray plaid kilts—do as they toss kettleballs twenty feet into the sky during Highland-Games competitions.

I was eight. Jim was my father. He was uncomfortable with me calling him Dad or Daddy or even Pa. He said, Call me Jim, or Jay. So I did. I would have been four, maybe five years old, the day that he had told me to call him by name. After our conversation, Jim reached out and shook my hand, instead of hugging me, as if we had just agreed upon an important matter.

Jim disliked being touched. He might have patted my back at the ballpark, saying, No worries. We’ll practice fielding grounders at home, but he wouldn’t have wrapped his arms around me. Sometimes he hugged Mother in public, though those moments were rare. Mother showed me a picture of him once cradling me. He looked proud.  I was an infant. I don’t remember that embrace.

So when he grabbed me then threw me, I was shocked. I still wonder what was running through his mind. Jim knew that I had been somewhat afraid of bodies of water—declining invitations to attend, or suggesting different venues for, outings or parties—up to that point in my life. He had even suggested hosting parties at our house, paying for the cake, so that his son could share in the “good times.” Now that I am an adult, I am deathly afraid of waters—oceans, lakes, kiddie pools—and of rollercoasters and of any sensation of falling or of submersion.

Jim had spent the morning consuming inexpensive cocktails, relishing his time off. We were living in Spangdahlem, Germany, and Jim wore the rank of staff sergeant in the United States Air Force. Each winter he crammed the family—Mother, Cindy and me—into his rusty Volkswagen Beetle. Cindy and I eye-spied with our little eyes or raced to find letters in hopes of winning in the alphabet game as we drove the many hours to a resort in Berchtesgaden, which was infamous because Adolf Hitler had lodged in Obersalzberg, a mountain retreat area that overlooks the town of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, in 1923.

The resort—surrounded by salt mines and swathed in beautifully decorated murals—included an indoor wave pool, and every half hour the high-pitched siren harkened, announcing the start of the water’s oscillations. Kids—previously too tired or too bored to play—would scurry from plastic, deck-side chairs; enter the limpid, shallow waters; and beckon for the waves to intensify. I generally stood just forward of the black painted one-meter marker, close to one of the white-tiled walls, waiting to bodysurf a perfect break—with the comforts of knowing that I could reach up and pull myself out of the water in a jiffy.

Jim had bought me a soft-serve ice cream, vanilla. I stood near the pool’s edge savoring the rare offering, admiring the graceful swimmers, seconds before Jim seized me. My arms and legs flailed as I descended toward the pool. I don’t remember what happened to my dessert. Jim had lobbed me into the deep end of the Olympic-size structure: the poolside area where he had earlier decided to “set up camp,” the side nearest the wet bar. Maybe for a moment, like some cartoon character: Wile E. Coyote perhaps, I thought that my fluttering-efforts would prevent my body from entering the water.

I was terrified. I had not yet to learn to swim. Jim had promised to teach me. He had explained that his father had taught him to swim. Jim had described the time that he had been flung—from a seven-foot aluminum fishing boat—into a lake.

I was around your age.

No, likely younger, Jim corrected himself, probably seven.

He went on to say, My legs immediately started kicking and my arms began flapping.

I became an expert, and it took only one session.

Jim guffawed as I broke the water’s plane. My back hit first, my legs next, and then my head plunged into the deep. The stinging pain seized my body. Water flooded my nose and mouth. My vision blurred then blackened.

Let him be, Jim said. He’s fine, were the first words that I remember hearing after one of the paramedics had revived me.

Mother later told me, You were dead.

She said, Your face, your body, turned blue. You were unresponsive for a minute or more.

Mother, though, was confused and overwrought by the commotion.

She said, I lost track of time, later admitting that perhaps I was only gone for mere seconds.

Mother explained, Vacationers had beseeched Jim to rescue you, pushing at his back, pulling on his arms, yelling in German and English.

I wanted to ask, Why didn’t the bystanders jump in, but I could see the distress in her furrowed burrow.

She continued to say, You lay at the bottom of the pool near a drain, motionless, suspended as if you were relaxing in an invisible reclining chair, moments before the wave pool’s siren blasted.

Mother said, Guests—young and old—ran around the edges of the pool, worried that not only would you drown but that you would be sucked into the mechanism that roused the water.

The machine, mother said they shouted, will eat him. Then spit him out, piece by piece.

Mother shook her head. She said that Jim had spoken, He’s a strong boy.

Come on, he went on, we’re just starting to have fun.

 

A surge of black river swallows Caylo. Cullen remains afloat, secure in his Scooby-Doo life vest. I leap to my bare feet, spilling the one beer that I brought. I smell lilac as I huff the arid air. I run to the water’s edge, but not into the river. Cullen begins laughing. He begins thrashing, but still, he laughs. Caylo’s head reemerges, five feet from where he had vanished. My heart races.

“I told you I could,” Caylo shouts.

“You didn’t touch the bottom,” Cullen says.

I listen as they banter: Caylo thinks he’s always right; Cullen is never convinced. Their conversation ends like usual. One shouts, I’ll play by myself. The other replies, Fine, distancing himself.

I nearly yell at Caylo. I want to holler at him: say that he frightened me, say that if he ever does that again I will . . . I don’t know what I will. I should have shouted, Don’t you every do that again. Maybe added ‘young man’ for dramatic emphasis, but I don’t. I count to ten, a technique learned from anger-management class. Besides, this is our weekend together, one of our few, and I refuse to return them to their mother feeling hatred for me.

They begged me to take them swimming.

We want to go to the river, they shouted. Mom said you were going to take us.

I asked, When did I say this, but I knew that the decision had already been made: I could not disappoint Caylo or Cullen despite their mother having once again derailed the weekend adventure that I had planned.

I wanted to tell the boys that their mother has no control over me, that their mother is no longer allowed to make my decisions and that she no longer has a say in our fun. They wouldn’t understand, I tell myself instead, especially since they had sprinted to the Jeep, from their mother’s half-embrace, wearing swim trunks, water shoes and goggles.

“Caylo knows how to swim,” Cullen said, hopping into his booster seat, buckling his seatbelt.

I waited for details. I wanted details: every detail—what they had eaten, what they learned, what they enjoyed—the things that happened to them when I’m away. I looked at both the boys through my mirror, glancing at one then the other. I felt unneeded, like a chauffeur who carts able bodies. They sat watching as Denver’s glassy buildings came then went, as we made our way three hours south to Trinidad.

“Caylo, did your mother teach you to swim?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, not looking my way.

Cullen announced, Sean did. It’s during these moments that I appreciate Cullen’s interruptions. Normally I would have told him that I was not talking to him. I would have continued to say that it’s impolite to interject, but lately Caylo has refused to disclose information. He wouldn’t have told me that it was Sean that took them to the pool. He wouldn’t have answered my question, Where was your mother? Work, I would have assumed, like usual.

“Sean’s a good mommy, huh?” I asked.

Cullen laughed then said, “Sean can’t be a mommy.”

“Mommy Sean,” Caylo replied, finally smiling.

 

I perceive the sounds of distant screams, then the sounds of chaos. I know that other swimmers are up the river, but until this point, they seemingly shared the day with us in a quiet and respectful manner. Suddenly, the arrival of a powerful surge of murky water engulfs the boys. Caylo and Cullen wallop the water, reemerging from beneath its surface but they continue to be swept farther away from the shoreline, away from me. June is the month for flash floods, but it’s the end of June and Colorado is suffering from an extreme drought, so I stand, watching, confused.

But I don’t have time to wonder what has happened. I dash eastward. I ignore the burrs and the pebbles that pierce my soles. I chase the fast flowing river. I chase my sons. I run after the boys—Cullen lagging behind Caylo—who have now separated from one another by more than twenty yards.

Caylo fights to remain above water; his arms and hands smack the surface. His eyes blink rapidly and he looks ashen. I can see him gasping for air like a fish in a fisherman’s hand gasps for water. Caylo claws at boulders as he quickly approaches, then passes them. His hands are too slick, too weak, to hold the coarse rocks.

“Grab something,” I holler, continuing to run, jumping brush, dodging stones.

“Where’s your brother?” I ask.

I slow to a trot. “Where’s Cullen?” I whisper.

I turn. Cullen has disappeared. I’m furious. I believed that I had placed myself between the two of them, able to watch both their routes. I planned to follow their course as they rode the current to shallow waters: where I could reach them with a tree branch or a discarded rope, something, anything. I stop. I look round. I investigate each shore: nothing, not even vinyl strips of Shaggy or Daphne or any other member of the Scooby-Doo crew as evidence of tragedy. I want to cry, cry out. I want a cigarette, but I no longer have any, having fulfilled my promise of abstaining. I turn and watch as the distance between Caylo and me becomes greater.

Do I choose to chase after the older son? The one who understood then cried knowing that I would never again live in his mother’s house: the favored one as some have said?

Or, do I search for the little one—with his wide-eyed frightened expression—the one who still likes to be cuddled, the one who still randomly says “I love you, dad”?

 

 

Did you want me to die? I asked Jim, after having recovered from nearly drowning, nearly dying. The blue coveralled paramedics had left, and Jim had assured the onlookers—We’re fine, we’re fine—that we no longer needed, or wanted, their attentions. The paramedics were speechless when Jim signed their forms. Jim said, Yes, I decline to take him to the hospital. Then he waved everyone away, flinging the backs of both hands forward in shooing motions.

Jim, sprawled in a lounge chair, didn’t answer right away. Instead, he took slow sips of his whiskey. I listened as the ice clinked against the resort’s fancy crystal cup—with its green, purple and orange hues—each time he brought it to his lips. I waited. I studied his unshaven face—a sight unfamiliar to me—before I watched the moisture slither along then fall off his glass, landing on his hairless chest and flabby stomach. I watched as each fallen drip traveled toward his belly button, pooling just outside.

Jim looked askance at me. He said, “Stop being a baby.”

I whispered, “Did I really die? Mother said I was dead.”

Jim and I had never spoken of death: we had only watched death on television. Those characters who stood around the dying actor showed worry and seemed to question the dying actor’s mortality. He and I had spent many hours, sitting side by side, watching some of his favorite shows. He had said, These are the classics. This is a real education. I had appreciated those occasions and the popcorn and his running dialog. I guess that is what Jim had meant when he spouted: That’s fake. That only happens in Hollywood, because Jim did not seem to worry nor did he question anything.

Mother had wrapped me in a fluffy white towel. She stood talking to a well-dressed member of the hotel staff—black suit, pink tie, glossy shoes. There was a tall, blonde-haired lady who stood watching the conversation, towering over both Mother and the man. My knees were pulled against my chest and my toes dangled over the edge of my seat. I could smell and taste the chlorine that had inundated my body, the same chlorine that would linger in my system for two more days.

“Why did you throw me in the pool?” I asked.

“You were fine,” Jim replied, sipping his whiskey.

“Jim,” I trembled as I spoke, “I was scared.”

Jim’s eyes met my eyes when I looked at him.

“You need to grow up and be a man,” he said: a statement that Jim often uttered during my youth.

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m on vacation,” Jim twisted his body away from me, “stop questioning me.”

Mother returned. She sat beside me, on the edge of my chair. She was wearing one of the resort’s white guest robes and the yellow flip-flops that she had purchased for our trip. She noticed my crying. “It’s all right,” she said. “You’re safe now.” She quickly rubbed—up and down, not in unison—both of my towel-covered arms. I appreciated the sensation of heat that her hands created. I didn’t welcome, though, the jolting and shaking, which nearly caused me to throw up.

Mother looked at Jim. I could see her anger; she appeared to be studying him. She pursed her lips, like she sometimes did when I forgot to clean my room or when I came home late. I believed that she wanted to strike Jim; her hands opened then closed as she glared at him, but she didn’t lash out. Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Jim focused on the pool. I could hear the racket of children’s play and of children crying, of people laughing and of mumbles of conversations.

“They’ve asked us to leave,” Mother said.

Jim continued to sip his whiskey—now devoid of ice—and at times I could smell the whiskey’s sweet and spicy odor as ceiling fans wafted its scent my direction.

“Did you hear me?” Mother asked. She kicked at his chair. “The resort manager said that guests have complained.”

“He was fine,” Jim replied. “People should mind their own business.”

“Timothy drowned.”

Jim looked at Mother. “I know what he did, and he was fine.”

“Well, they’ve asked you to leave anyway,” Mother said, standing up before walking away. “Your son was dead, and you’re a bastard.”

Jim wagged his hand in the air in an attempt to capture the attention of one of the waiters, but all the waiters seemed to be ignoring him. I observed his skin flush from its usual pale white.

Both of us started when the wave pool’s siren rang out. The noise level increased as children became excited, and I could hear their hurrying feet slap the water as they scampered into the pool. The ground began to vibrate as the wave machine rumbled, crashing water against the tiles of the shallow end.

Jim rolled to his feet. He muttered something that sounded like This is bullshit. I watched him lazily collect his stuff: imitation Ray-Ban sunglasses, tennis shoes, sporting magazine, a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips.

He murmured a few more words before he said, “You know this is your fault.”

“How?”

“It’s just your fault.” He continued, “Get your stuff. Let’s go.”

Jim began to shamble away.

“I don’t like you,” I said.

“Good,” he replied, not turning round.

 

During our drive to the river, I had considered scolding Caylo for allowing Sean to teach him how to swim. I had wanted to tell—no, I wanted to shout at—the boys that it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach a child everything, not some boyfriend who may be gone tomorrow.

The boys should have known better, I thought; they should have realized their mistake and should have asked Sean not to show Caylo how to lock his knees, how to dip his shoulder while reaching forward as far as possible with his lead hand, and other procedures: procedures that I am unfamiliar with—other than having watched swim events on television. But I would not have been the one to have taught them: I would have hired a swim instructor—someone unafraid of water. The boys might have swum and laughed as I shouted encouragement: I’m so proud of you; That’s it; Good job guys, from the bleachers.

I sprint after Caylo, the son who I can see, the son who I tossed into the middle of his parents’ divorce. Caylo is the one who will remember the yelling—I hate you; I hate you, too—the times that I slept on the couch and the times that I blurted, or correctly stated, that Your mommy is not the better parent, withholding the fact that she had been the one who had cheated.

I must save him, I say to myself.

Caylo speeds away.

I tell myself, Don’t worry about Cullen. He’s safe. I’ll find him later.

Caylo struggles to rotate his body, but he turns, facing downriver.

“Caylo,” I shout.

He tries to look back. Water shrouds his face.

 

 

Since the divorce, I have expected to receive that late-night phone call from the boys’ mother: telling me that one or both of the boys have fallen and have seriously hurt themselves. I predicted that one night I would be startled from my dreamless slumber by the ringing of my phone, then would be upset by their mother’s voice: her requesting that I hurry, that I hurry to some county hospital that would take me hours to locate—hidden by mountain roads –and that employs a staff that would not answer my questions because they would believe that Sean, the boyfriend, is the father of my boys, since he’s the male figure hovering by my boys’ sides.

The particulars of their injury, their mother would say, are unclear.

I would ask: Where were you? What were you doing?

Silence would once again come between us.

I often envisioned the story of Caylo and Cullen playing a fierce game of tag on the edge of a precipice as their mother belays Sean, who rock climbs a difficult slab. Cullen may have instigated the game; he tends to provoke others. Caylo, at first, would refuse to partake. As was I, he’s the obedient child. Their mother, who—I believe—should be observing their every move, pays attention to the boyfriend, barking directions to better footing or handholds.

Cullen would have hit Caylo, probably closed-fisted; Caylo would have shoved too hard, quick to anger. They would both fall with Caylo attempting to prevent Cullen from tumbling over the cliff’s boundary. But, this is not the case. I will be the one who’s required to call their mother. I will have to tell her that they are fine or that they are not.

Caylo smashes into a boulder. Rushing water forces him higher onto the rock, raking his face and chest against the serrated mass. A thin string of blood escapes the cut along his brow. He appears lifeless: his arms lay askew and his legs lay contorted. Caylo—my darling son—remains unconscious as I will him to use his hands to scramble up the boulder and to prevent his skin from being ripped from his body.

“Help!” I yell.

My voice echoes, searches, the valley.

“Caylo!” I yell.

I hesitate on the edge of the riverbank. The cold, wet sand forces chills through my sweat-laden body. I breathe shallowly. I shiver out of fear, out of exhaustion. I stare at the lapping water grabbing for my toes. I step back onto the white sand. I scan the onrushing water, hoping to see that Cullen has floated unharmed down the river. Instead, I see bone-colored logs damming routes and blue plastic bags that have yellow smiley faces drawn on them flapping from the arms of trees.

I look at Caylo. He has yet to move. I think, He’s all I got. His swimming trunks have puffed, infiltrated by water and air. I hadn’t noticed the silhouettes of snowboarders and skateboarders until this moment. My attentiveness had always been a subject of contention.

I hadn’t thought about Jim in years; however for some reason, I begin asking myself What would he do? I recall the expression on his face the day that I flipped, or the day that he flipped me, through the air. I remember seeing his blurred profile—red shorts, arms crossed—through watery eyes, and all I can hear is his lazy voice chanting, He’s fine; don’t worry about him.

I take a step forward, entering the water for the first time in thirty years. The frigid river sends goose pimples to my neck. The Purgatoire guzzles my feet. I take two large steps forward: my knees disappear. The river bullies me, pushing me south. The water races up my shirt like a thirsty sponge. I place my hands in front of me: I tightrope along the river rocks. I slip. I adjust my arms, counterbalancing. I stumble. I lean from the waist in the direction of Caylo, and I leap into the water, consumed.

The blackness captivates me, and I am consoled by the silence.

 

___

James Seals earned his Creative Writing and English degree from the Southern New Hampshire University. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction from SNHU. James Seals’ story “White, Like You” was chosen as the winner of SNHU Graduate Student Writing Contest, to be published in Amoskeag Journal, April 2013. His poetry has been anthologized in Measuring Twine: Poetry with Strings Attach.


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