by Lisa Taylor
Lily-Rae was six years old the summer she wasted an entire week of Mama’s life.
She was to hear about this travesty for the next four decades.
Imagine! Mama signed her up for swimming lessons, forty-five minutes a day, five whole days in a row! For all that time Mama would have to take her clear ‘cross town to the public pool, sit waitin’ for nearly an entire hour while she learned to swim, then drive her ‘clear home again.
What Lily-Rae’d done to deserve such a wonderful, generous Mama, well…even Mama didn’t know.
Off they go. Lily-Rae wearing her red one piece and clutching an old towel, (naturally she couldn’t expect to use one of Mama’s good avocado green ones.) Curled toe standing on the cold wet cement next to the pool with her class – seven kids in all. Every one shiver-shaking with fear except three boys, all about a foot and a half taller than Lily-Rae. Then their teacher, bony, pale with a shock of white hair and about ninety years old, walks over and instructs them to get into the water.
Which they do. And promptly began shiver-shaking from freezing, ice cube cold.
Now he tells them to put their faces into the water, open their eyes, and look around!
Lily-Rae’s jaw drops, feeling with absolute certainty this old guy’s crazier than a bedbug and dead set on trying to kill her. She spins around, stretching her neck, looking for Mama who doesn’t seem to be anywhere. Geez Louise! Trust Mama to go off, leavin’ her to be drowned by some crazy guy wearing purple swimming pants.
Somehow Lily-Rae endures those horrible forty-five minutes, climbs – streaking chorine water – outta the pool, and heads for the locker room where she towels off, changes back into her street clothes, and tries to tell Mama all about that crazy man on the drive home.
Instead Lily-Rae gets an earful of how Mama didn’t learn to swim.
And – as a bonus feature – of how Mama’d seen Jesus on the railroad tracks that time her daddy tried to kill her but didn’t ’cause Jesus wouldn’t let him. (Which Lily-Rae has already heard countless times though she listens politely while reciting Little Orphant Annie in her head.)
The Story Of How I Didn’t Learn To Swim
My daddy, who was probably drunk at the time, ‘course that wasn’t his fault, he was a good ole’ boy who liked talking with his friends – everyone loved him – and sing! Have I told you how he could play any instrument he touched? Lord – I just wished you’d inherited some of his talent Lily-Rae, ‘stead of being so damn common like your SOB daddy…
“Are you listening Lily-Rae? Why’re you moving your mouth like that? Stop it! Makes you look like a goddamn half-wit.”
Anyway – my daddy took me out to the pond.
(Some days, when Mama’s feelin’ wilder, the pond transforms into a river.)
Daddy says, “Beulah – I’m gonna teach you to swim!” And he up and throws me into that pond!
Which is Lily-Rae’s cue to gasp, asking incredulously (a word she doesn’t learn until later), “He threw you, Mama!”
“Yes,” Mama nods her head, thin lips pinched painful at the memory.
“Oh my,” says Lily-Rae. “What’d you do?”
“Well I swam!” Mama says, rare green eyes sparkling triumphant. “I swam clean to the shore and hauled myself in, exhausted as hell! Then naturally I tended to the kids, did laundry, we didn’t have a washing machine ya know, and made supper. But from that day forward…” Mama’s voice takes on its trembling, ominous tone.“From that day forward I was terrified of water – though I can surely swim better than anyone ever alive has. I’m terrified of water!”
Mama pauses for effect, allowing the magnitude of her words to sink in. Lily-Rae gasps, nodding her head just right.
“Which is why I’m willing to sacrifice my time for you Lily-Rae. Spending hours drivin’ you clear ‘cross town to learn to swim instead’a getting my hair done or going out for lunch down to Irma’s with La Dawn.”
“I know Mama,” Lily-Rae nods different, a sincere, appreciative nod.
“So you be sure an’ listen and be the best damn swimmer there!”
“I will Mama,” Lily-Rae promises. Looking solemn. Thinking maybe Mama woulda been better off going down for her usual patty melt and black coffee with tall, gangly La Dawn. (“Homelier than a mud fence made outta shit,” Mama says. “But a darlin’ and just so devoted to me.”) Sitting in one of Irma’s red vinyl booths, her legs crossed ladylike, every man in the joint smiling over, admiring her while Lily-Rae sat home alone, reading, watching TV, and keeping watch out the window for homicidal maniacs.
Yeal, Lily-Rae bites at her chapped lips, peeling off a thick piece of skin with her teeth, spitting it out into a tissue which she tosses, wadded tight, onto the car floor. Dang if we both wouldn’t been a whole lot better off if Mama’d kept to her regular routine. Now I gotta try not to get drowned plus listen to how Jesus saved Mama from that dern train all over again. Shee-it.
In Which Things Get Worse
Today the crazy teacher in purple swim pants tells Lily-Rae to put her whole, entire head beneath the water!
After some encouragement from her new bestest friend Patty, (the only girl in the class who isn’t a snot), Lily-Rae somehow accomplishes this horrid feat.
She leaves class clutching her mildewed yellow towel, wondering what godawful thing that crazy man will have ‘em doing tomorrow and whether she knows how to swim yet.
Days Three and Four.
Go Pretty Much Like Day Two
With the bothersome addition of something called strokes.
Kicks, Lily-Rae can handle, though her toes scrape something painful against the pebbly, rough, pool bottom.
Lily-Rae and Patty figure when they begin deep water swimming this scraping business will stop.
In Which Lily-Rae Almost Drowns And Mama Rages
Today they practice strokes and kicks for twenty minutes straight. Then the crazy teacher takes them to the Deep End of the pool.
Never having dared venture near this off limits area, (the sole domain of swim teachers and teenagers), Lily-Rae and Patty feel pretty uncertain about the whole idea and huddle together in the corner, being invisible. Something Lily-Rae spends a fair amount of her time at home attempting, and knows from long experience really doesn’t work.
First one tall boy, then the next, then the third, swim clear across the Deep End and back again – using strokes to perfection and kicking up a virtual typhoon of water.
Lily-Rae and Patty watch in dead silence.
Then it’s Patty’s turn. She and Lily-Rae exchange glances, positive Patty is about to die. Knowing Lily-Rae’ll be joining her and Saint Peter at the pearly gates in no time flat.
Closing her eyes Patty inhales; lunging into the water.
Two seconds later their crazy teacher hauls her back in, sputtering and belching up half the pool.
Now it’s Lily-Rae’s turn. There’s Mama, watching from the sidelines. Her skirt hugging her rear end, purse hanging on her arm all ladylike, hair spray holding fine – humidity never dares affect someone as determined as Mama. Lily-Rae takes a breath, throws out one arm like she’s been taught, and starts stroking and kicking to beat the dickens.
She’s halfway across the Deep End when things, as they say, go south.
Her feet keep sinking despite how hard or fast she kicks. Her arms, no matter how long she stretches or straight she makes them, keep flailing off to the side. First she’s being drug down by her feet, then she’s being drug down by her head.
Lily-Rae splutters and flounders – wondering if the Pool People realize a kid grabbin’ octopus lurks in the Deep End. Now Lily-Rae’s bobbing up and down, her hands waggling in the air, attempting to holler for help.
After a few seconds she has a hell of a rhythm going. Dang! I knew Mama shoulda enrolled me in those dance lessons! flashes through her mind.
She remembers hearing people often think strange things before they die.
On her next to last bob she catches a watery glimpse of Patty pointing at her, hollering at the crazy teacher who’s had his back to Lily-Rae all this time.
One more dunk, one more breaking the surface, down again, and a pair of hairy arms above purple swim pants drags her to the side of the pool where Patty asks “Are you all right?” and the crazy teacher hauls out his next victim.
Finally, after the last would be swimmer fails to get across the Deep End the class is kicked out of the pool, (though Lily-Rae and Patty swear they were promised “free time.”) Dripping and shaking they watch the three tall boys receive their diplomas for managing to swim both ways through the Deep End without nearly drowning and are now (evidently) swimmers.
Lily-Rae waves goodbye to Patty, (who, as is the way with such classes, she never sees again), watching her leave with her limp haired, chubby mother. While Lily-Rae gets to ride home with Mama.
Who is raging.
Though naturally it isn’t her fault she’s mad, it’s Lily-Rae’s who’s let her down horribly by not learning to swim! Letting those goddamn boys get the awards while she – well and Lily-Rae – got nothin’ but a whole mess of trouble driving all this damn way and hell if you’ll catch me doin’ this again if you’re not even gonna try! Shit – aren’t you gonna get it when we get home!
Thinking on it later, Lily-Rae wishes someone had just done her a favor by throwin’ her in an ole’ pond.
Or a river.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story! (And here I thought I was the only one whose swimming lessons didn’t take. I too had to be hauled out of the Deep End half-drowned.)
That mom is a character a reader loves to hate. At least, I did. Wonderful storytelling!
Great characterization and voice. Bravo!