Sunday, March 15, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 203: Clear Water

Tiny Bubbles DVID by Staff Sgt. Felix Fimbres, Wikimedia

Clear Water

The two photographs sit on opposite corners of my desk.

One of them has a background of brown and yellow.  The man in it has a warm, confident smile.  His right shoulder is higher than the left, as if he were waving when the close-up was taken.  Just beneath the knot of his tie is the caption 'Glenfield for State Representative.'  He autographed it for me, Darren did.  Which I found irritating, since I didn't ask.  It isn't the type of thing you really want from a friend.

The other photo has that grainy look that ad-men insist on giving to artists.  There's a shadow over most of the face and the eyes seem to glare down at you.  The portrait appeared in public as the back flap of a book jack to Ellis's Poetry for the Terminally Gullible.

A person who had never known either of them wouldn't guess they are brothers.  The features of both have been obscured in different ways by clever make-up and tricks with gloss and lighting.  They both have blonde hair, big ears, and penetrating, hazel eyes.  Or had.  Ellis is no longer present tense.  In the photographs, all they share is a similar bump on the ridge of the nose and the sharp, distinctive family chin.  Ellis's photographer thought poets should seem deathly pallid and disturbingly serious, so his hair looks almost black.  Darren's ears seem slightly smaller than life; the lobes have been airbrushed away.

I only keep the photographs because they seem artistically correct.  They sum up a difference in attitude.  More than attitude, fate.


He came to the door yesterday in a floppy green raincoat.  Water ran down from the wide plastic hood into strands of his dark, curly, brown hair.  His cheeks and nose were flushed.  His wire-rimmed glasses were covered with fog.

"Mister Turner?"  He handed me my newspaper.

"Yes," I said.  I took the plastic bag from his hand without really looking at him.  "Are you doing our route now?"

"No.  You may remember me from the funeral."

On my first glance, all I noticed were his clothes since he was dressed for the weather, and his height.  He was fairly short, no more than five foot eight and, because of it, I'd assumed he was a teenager.  He had a two-day old beard that I'd missed.  His voice seemed very adult.  Not deep or rough, simply authoritative.  Calm.  Accustomed to classroom lectures, perhaps.

"My name is Gregory Ryan," he said.  "I'm the fellow who wants to write a book about Ellis."

"Ah, yes.  That's right.  You're the one from Berkeley."

Ryan allowed himself a boyish smile.  He was around thirty-five and his features must have seemed endearing to his students.  "You wouldn't talk to the other two," he said.  "I was hoping I might convince you anyway."

"Why?  Aren't you going to interview his lovers?"

"That’s a way to do it."  He stared down at the beads of rain, dripping off his shoelaces.  "Robert, didn't Ellis always seem to know he was going to die young?  Wasn't he always fascinated by death?  You knew him when he was a child.  Before he contracted meningitis, didn't he talk about suicide?"

The question was direct and personal, which I liked.  But I debated whether or not to let him in and decided against it.

"Yeah," I said.  "He was kind of morbid as a kid.  What's your relation to him?"

"We taught together at Santa Cruz.  Also, we skydived together.  For a while."  He grinned.  He must have known how hard it was to picture him in the open door of a plane.  "I blew a couple hundred dollars in return airfare by staying.  It would help me if you could come up with something."

"What do you want?"

"Anything.  Write it down if it makes you feel more comfortable.  Here.  I'm staying at a friend's apartment until next Saturday."  He pulled out an orange spiral notepad and tore off a square of the paper.  "This is the address."

"Can't promise much."

"Just tell me what’s on your mind.  I'll ask the questions later, when we've all had more time to recover."  He crumpled it in my hand, wrapping my fingers around it.  "Please.  Anything that occurs to you.  Ellis didn't like to talk about his past with me.  Now that I’ve started to investigate, I’m finding that he didn't dwell over it with anybody.  He got impatient about the past as if his own was embarrassing, or small, or there wasn’t time to think about it."


I envision him on a trip home from a doctor, probably one of the allergists.  He rolls out of the brown station wagon door.  He smiles, grim with secret knowledge, a thin-boned, round-faced kid with hazel eyes.  He holds the ball, a black superball as big as his hand, lips moving to words I cannot quite hear.  He waves to me.  Come on, come on.  Let's play.  We haven't got much time.

Maybe he said that.  Maybe he was telling me, Bobby, we haven't got much time.  But I should discard the memory, if it's even a memory at all.  For sure, that one is tainted by hindsight.  So are all my other memories of him, all contaminated by my awareness that I've outlived him.

His photograph sits on my desk.  In it, there is no sign of the insistent, twelve-year-old visionary.  There is only a weary, young man, around twenty-eight.  The tan has faded to ghostly pale.  His muscles are leaner than they were in his adolescence, when his biceps and neck were nearly maps of his tendons and veins.  He was strong, once, an athlete of sorts, if swimmers qualify as athletes.  I was on his team.  But I swam behind the Glenfields.  Ellis had real talent.  Darren had more.  So I was the slow man in the medley relay that won for our team each year.  Most of the time, I plastered my corkboard with third and fourth place ribbons while Ellis and Darren brought home medals for a showcase.  But when I swam with them, I was a winner.

There is a memory I'm thinking of now that never seemed significant before.


Ellis was seventeen.  That summer, his skin was an open wound, burnt shades of red and brown from the sun.  The freckles on his back were skin cancer, though we didn't know that then.  His hair had bleached into curly wires of gold.

Darren was tanned light, a slice of human toast, Wonder Bread.  He was younger than Ellis by three years and taller by four inches.  This was nineteen sixty-two, the summer they were forced to compete with each other.  Electronic timing was new.  Breastrokers still used a frog kick.  The air wasn't clean but it was not yet popular to call it smog.

It was the county All-Stars, the last meet of the season.  I'd offered to replace the back-up timer behind lane six, a grown woman who had just discovered she was pregnant.  It wasn't something I'd done out of a sense of responsibility.  The morning sun cut hard through the morning haze.  It blinded everyone who had to glance up at the backstroke flags or the starting gun.  In that light, being a timer was the only way to get a good seat.

When the hundred meter breastroke came up, the Glenfields came to sit on the diving board behind me.  This was the race all three of us had been waiting for, Ellis because it was his last before he turned nineteen and became ineligible, Darren because it was the only event he'd never beaten Ellis in.

"Here we are," Darren said, with a glance to the other swimmers.  He leaned against the aluminum banister and struggled with his pale, red racing cap.

"Hi, Bob," said Ellis.  He folded his towel into a seat cushion, then turned away from it.

The younger, taller boy swung his arm in a circle.  He bent for a leg stretch.  Ellis kept his back toward us, standing quietly, head bowed.  I didn't take offense, like I might if someone did that to me nowadays.  Ellis had problems concentrating.  He didn't talk to anyone before a race.

"What's it going to take?" I asked Darren.

"An eleven," he replied.  "Probably a fourteen to place, which I might do if I keep my kick tight."

Neither of them had a chance of winning and they knew it.  Ellis was the most experienced swimmer in the heat, but there always seemed to be one or two people who were a few seconds better than he was, too much difference to hope to make up.  This year he was seeded fifth and was hoping for second or third.  It would mean a trophy for his final race.

The first heat of their event churned into the wall, eight skinny bodies struggling through what looked like melted glass.  A few of them improved their times.  Most didn't.  The sun had drained everyone of their usual energy.  The concrete deck was hard to look at.  Glare from the pool made finishes hard to judge.

When they stepped up to the starting blocks, Ellis and Darren glanced at each other.  Ellis was frowning.  Darren gave him a tight, competitive smile.

The younger teen had lane eight and the older was in mine.  I watched the curve of Ellis's spine as he crouched.  You could see his scoliosis then, just before he dove.  When he stood straight his muscles covered the curve of degeneration but when he bent, anyone could tell.  There was something wrong inside of him.  While I was looking, the starter, a dark-haired, pot-bellied man in a white polo shirt, recited the number of the event through a loudspeaker.  The crowd quieted.

"Gentlemen, take your mark."

Darren was the last person to move into his crouch, lazy and relaxed.

The gun fired.  Ellis was the slowest into the water.  That was normal, for him.  His reflexes weren’t the best.  No matter how much he anticipated the gun, he could never quite compensate for that lack of gut-level quickness.

Darren had done fine, in his lazy way.  After the underwater pullouts, which they were both good at, his head broke the surface in the lead.

It took less than a length of the pool for the leader to establish himself.  He was a tall, brown-haired guy.  I don't remember his name but my head is still full of useless statistics about him, assimilated and retained from wandering conversations with Ellis.  He never went to the Olympics, the guy who won the race, but he made it to the semi-finals to qualify.  That’s pretty close and he was way, way better than anyone else in the summer league.  At the wall, he was a body length ahead.  The Glenfields were part of the pack chasing after him.


I guess the swimming event itself isn't that important.  All those details about strokes, turns, and push-offs are irrelevant.  I mean, who thinks about this race anymore, except for me?  Darren, maybe.

What matters is that this was Ellis's last chance.  There was a pretty good mind in charge of his body but the body itself was riddled with deformities, all slight but nagging.  He'd spent a large part of his childhood in bed with asthma.  He was aging fast, too, with pattern baldness showing on the back of his head and arthritis causing him aches in his wrists and ankles.  Darren had grown taller and stronger and had beaten him at everything else they competed in.  Every breastroke race, though, provided Ellis with a lonely-seeming victory.  The event was his last defense against the inevitable.

While the older teen struggled and churned in the pool, striving for maximum speed, Darren glided with ease.  The younger boy's strokes remained smooth.  By the second length, Darren had fallen into rhythm.  If he'd looked over to the other swimmers, he'd have seen he was only a body length off the lead.  That was second place and by a good margin.  But he was in lane eight, too far away to know.

Ellis knew where he was.  He was in the middle of the pack, his fingertips not quite to the lane position of Darren's shoulder blades.  He wasn’t even ahead of lane two next to him.  When the brothers hit the touchpads beneath my feet, they were about a second apart.

The older boy's stroke changed in the last two pulls before the turn.  His concentration had clicked in and he was completely aware of his body in the water.

It was a level of intensity, he told me, that he'd reached only half a dozen times in his life, and I knew the instant it came over him.  His hands stretched out farther, captured cups of water better, frog kicks closing tight behind, catapulting him forward, his face an open-mouthed grimace.  In those two strokes, he pulled half a body ahead of the swimmers around him.  The electronic timer ranked his split time as third, not too far behind Darren.

During the pullout off the turn, Ellis caught his younger brother.  Darren wasn’t swimming any harder.  His turn had looked lazy.  Then Ellis began his third-lap acceleration.  He always tried to be in the lead before the final sprint.  He figured he could hang on until the end no matter how tired he was.  Darren couldn't see anyone but, at about the halfway point in the pool, he gathered his extra strength and narrowed his pull.

Ellis muscled through.  His chest was thick and his arms were short and wide.  Most of his power came from the upper half of his body.  He tried to cut a path for himself.  But I saw him twist his neck uncomfortably.

Around the last turn, Ellis was second.  A swimmer from lane five had pulled close to him and Darren was a fraction farther behind.  The older brother, with fast, pumping strokes, kept holding his edge.  His pullout was perfect, maximum distance with minimum effort and loss of speed.  I could see, on his face, that he knew he was ahead.  The surface of the pool stretched out calm in front of him.  He gave up all his thoughts about grace and style and sprinted towards the end, towards me, as I stood with a watch in my hand.  He nearly lost control of himself in the final burst of energy.  The last four meters were an exercise in discipline.

I leaned over the water to see his hands knifing in.  Five lanes to my left, Darren's long arms were stretching towards the wall.  He had noticed his older brother and had matched pace.  A lane to the right, the other swimmer was synchronizing with Ellis's motions almost exactly.  His head was turned to look at Ellis and Darren as they approached together.

The three of them reached towards their electric pads, gasping chests falling into the transparent water, the last kicks pressing closed, lashing out behind with the final, driving effort.  Ellis's fingertips hit before his brother.

From my position, half a meter above the water, I saw the blink of the finish.  The starter was squinting into the glare.  The finishing judge had stepped out of position.  Ellis out-touched the others for second place.  The competitor in lane two smashed the water with his forearm, angry because he had watched himself lose.

Darren smiled over to his older brother, who grinned back.  They lifted themselves out of the water.


This is why the photographs remind me so much of the division between them.  I know what Ellis felt about his body and how mortal it proved him to be.  I know that Darren, even to his day, the day after the funeral, is oblivious to the good fortunes in his life that came from his health.  It's a division between regular folks and heroic ones.  Ellis belonged to the middle of the pack of ordinary competitors, no matter how much he tried to raise himself higher.

Later on, in the conversations we had about that day, Ellis said this was when he first realized he might struggle and never achieve anything much.  And he knew that Darren would always be the golden boy, the natural leader, even though he was younger.  He admitted that for a jealous instant, he despised his brother.  It was amazing that he hadn’t had that moment before.  Darren had stolen victories from his brother without even trying.

They were standing by the scorer's table when the results were announced.  A neon board lit up with the exact figures and a man read the times over a microphone.  First place, at a minute eleven point something, was the boy everyone had expected to win.

Second place, at one minute thirteen point eight six seconds, was Darren Glenfield.

Flapping his towel around him in victory, Darren let out a whoop.  His first reaction was to congratulate himself and he held his arms up high, facing Ellis, smiling a self-contented, still-amazed-at-himself smile.  If that first reaction had come an instant later, or if he hadn't been standing so close to his older brother, things might have happened differently.  He didn't follow Ellis's eyes up to the third place slot on the scoreboard.  He didn't know that the electronic timer had placed the swimmer in lane three ahead of Ellis.  He whooped again while his brother stared in shock.

It wasn't even the cheer, I think, that prompted Ellis' reflex.  It was the smile and the motion, the head rising up and down in his field of vision, the shadow it cast.  He drew back the heel of his hand and thumped his little brother hard in the center of the chest.

Darren had been standing at the edge of the pool.  As he fell, he opened his eyes and saw Ellis's expression for the first time.  His hands let go of the orange and purple towel.  He tried to balance himself.  He grasped at the flagpole.

It was Ellis who grabbed the pole.  With his other hand, the one he had pushed with, he caught Darren's wrist and yanked.  Darren yanked back, climbing up his brother's right arm.  For a second, it looked like they might make it.  Then the flagpole began to tip and Ellis had to let it go or drag it into the water with him.  He gave it a reluctant, longing gaze as he fell.  Darren's grip carried both of them over the water.

This feels like the essential moment of the incident.  But there is no moral to it.  Life gives everyone what it gives.  Ellis compared his life to Darren’s.  In that instant, he felt resentful.  Then it was over and he regretted what he’d felt.  He resigned himself, probably for the hundredth time, probably for all time, to how things were going for him.

Hand in hand, they tumbled over the closest lane rope, a string of red and white beads.  Their legs kicked and they dove in opposite diagonal directions to the bottom of the pool.  I saw the paths they’d taken.  An official in a white shirt glanced around.  He shaded his eyes and noticed the trails in the water, how they diverged, but he turned away in confusion.  He tried to ask another official about it while the traces faded into pale blue foam and glare.

originally published as Eric Gallagher in The Frederick New Paper, 1991

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