From the Shallow to the Deep ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The first lesson was a lecture in a small room that smelled like wet towels. Nelson Hess hated it already. He sat in the back of the room observing the fifteen or so other boys who, like him, were lucky enough to be going to learn how to swim. They were all forceful, confident types; they swaggered when they walked and their voices were loud and bursting with authority. They couldn’t wait to get their suits on and get into the water.
When Boss walked into the room, the voices stopped. He was a stocky, middle-aged man with a face like a movie hoodlum. He wore a sweatshirt and black shorts and around his neck a whistle. He had more hair on his thick legs than he did on his head.
“Now, beginning swimming is not easy,” Boss barked, the gruff drill sergeant whipping the raw recruits into shape. “Most of you are not in shape for swimming and we’re going to have to get you into shape. I hope none of you are babies or whiners because if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a baby or a whiner. Or a sissy. Sissies are even worse. So if there are any sissies, whiners or babies among you, you are welcome to leave right now!”
The boys attested confidently that they were manly enough for what was coming.
“No babies?” Boss asked, holding up all his fingers. “No whiners? No sissies? No? Well, good, then! Let’s get started.” He took a deep breath and smiled sadistically.
“Everybody must have his own suit and his own towel. If you arrive for your lesson without either of these two items, you will not be allowed to participate. You will fall behind and end up failing the class and we don’t like failures. Now, do we have any failures here?”
“No!” the boys shouted.
“You will not at any time ask to borrow someone else’s towel if for some reason you do not have your own. That is an unsanitary practice that we do not engage in. Does everybody understand this simple rule?”
“Good! Now, your suit may be any color you like. Except pink. I wouldn’t recommend pink.”
The boys laughed appreciatively.
“And it must be presentable.”
“What does that mean?” somebody asked.
“Well, you don’t want your manly parts hanging out, now, do you?”
The boys laughed loud and long. Boss was one of them. He was a good guy!
“Now, we all know what horseplay is, don’t we? That’s another thing that will not be tolerated here. You will have fun, of course, but you will walk and not run at all times when you are near the pool and you will never play grab-ass with another swimmer.”
“Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand what I’m saying?”
“Good. Now, whenever you hear my whistle, whether you are in the water or out of it, you will stop what you are doing and listen to what I have to say. The whistle is the signal for you to stop and pay attention. Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand this?”
“All right, then! Over the next eight weeks, each and every one of you will learn how to swim like a champion. Are we all champions?”
“Is there any one of you who doesn’t firmly believe in his heart that he is a champion?”
Nelson Hess took a deep breath and when he exhaled his breath was shaky. He wanted to raise his hand and dismiss himself, say he was having chest pains or had had a sudden premonition of the end of the world, but the time was past for such a move. Everybody would laugh at him and Boss would deliberately embarrass him.
“Now, at the end of your eight weeks,” Boss continued, “you will take a final exam.”
A collective groan went up.
“It’s not the kind of exam you take sitting at a desk with a pencil in your hand, though. It’s an exam that will consist of swimming the length of the pool, from the shallow to the deep, and back again. And that’s not all. Each of you will be required to dive at least once off the high dive.”
“How high?” somebody asked.
“What if we can’t do it?”
“Then you fail the class. You will have wasted your time and mine and made a complete ass of yourself in the bargain. Is there anybody here who thinks he can’t do it?”
“All right, then. Be here on Friday at two o’clock, suited up and ready to swim. And that doesn’t mean two minutes after two, either. It means two on the dot!”
After the others had left in high spirits, Nelson hung back to have a word with Boss.
“I won’t be here on Friday, sir,” he said. “Or any other day.”
Boss looked at him, seeing him for the first time, and frowned. “Why the hell not?” he asked.
“Well, this was all kind of a mistake.”
“My being signed up for a swimming class. I don’t want to learn how to swim.”
“Why did you sign up for a swimming class if you don’t want to learn how to swim?”
“My father signed me up. Without checking with me first.”
“Don’t you think swimming would be a good skill for a young fellow like you to have?”
“Not for me.”
“I’m afraid of being in the water over my head. I’m afraid of drowning.”
“Do you think I’d let you drown?”
“I don’t know, sir. Would you?”
“If you have to ask that question, you’re in the wrong place.”
“Not only am I afraid of the water, I’m also afraid of heights. I could never jump thirty feet into the water.”
“That’s what swimming class is about. Helping you overcome your fears. Wouldn’t you like to reconsider?”
“No, sir. I made up my mind the minute I walked into this room.”
“It’s irreversible, you know. You can’t change your mind again. There are other people who want your spot.”
“I understand that, sir!”
“So, when you tell your father that you quit swimming before it even started, don’t make him think he can make a couple of phone calls and pull some strings to get you back in again.”
“That’s perfectly all right, sir. I understand completely. This is absolutely the end of the line for me when it comes to swimming.”
“You won’t get your money back. The tuition is nonrefundable.”
“I understand, sir. That’s perfectly all right.”
“What’s your name?”
“Nelson Hess Junior. It’ll be under the H’s.”
Boss opened the class roll and marked out Nelson’s name. “I knew a Nelson Hess in high school,” he said.
“That would be Nelson Hess Senior,” Nelson said. “He’s my father.”
“I see. Give him my regards.”
Boss went out the door and Nelson was left alone in the quiet room. He laughed to himself, as he often did when he found himself alone. He felt weak with relief at having escaped the high dive, but, of course, that was just a small part of it.
At the dinner table that evening, Nelson Junior knew that Nelson Senior would be curious about the first day of swimming. It came about ten minutes into the deli fried chicken and potato salad.
“Well, how did it go today?” Nelson Senior asked.
“How did what go?”
“The swimming lesson, of course! I want to hear about it!”
“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” Nelson Junior said.
He told Nelson Senior everything that happened in the swimming class, everything Boss had said, leaving nothing out. When he was finished, Nelson Senior glared at him.
“I’m disappointed in you,” Nelson Senior said.
“I know you are, sir.”
“Can’t you ever be normal like other boys?”
“I guess I’m just not normal.”
“Do you know how embarrassing that is for me?”
“Really, when you think about it, sir, there’s no need for you to be embarrassed.”
“Do you know what my father would have done if I had defied him the way you’re defying me?”
“I don’t know. Had a fit?”
“It just wasn’t done when I was your age.”
“Mother would never have signed me up for a class she knew I’d hate!”
“How do you know you’d hate it? You’ve never done it!”
“You just know these things. I know I’d hate tightrope walking, too, even though I’ve never done it.”
“That’s not funny!”
“It’s not meant to be.”
“For the next month your wings are clipped.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you won’t get out of the house except to go to school. There’ll be no TV, no sleeping until ten a.m., and no lounging around the house. There’s lots of work to be done around here. You’ll clean the gutters, reseed the lawn, patch the holes in the driveway, trim the pear tree and the hedges, clean out the basement and the attic…”
“What will you be doing that whole time?” Nelson Junior asked Nelson Senior.
“I’ll be standing over you to make sure you get everything done.”
“Sounds like a million laughs.”
Nelson Hess stood up from the table and started to walk away.
“Oh, yes!” he said. “There’s one other thing. I expect you to pay me back the lost tuition money.”
“Yes, sir!” Nelson Junior said. “I’ll see how much I have in my piggy bank, sir!”
Nelson Senior went out the back door, slamming it. Nelson Junior was relieved to hear him get into his car and drive away. He hoped he’d never come back.
That night he dreamed he was drowning in the deep end of the pool. He was flailing around at the bottom, panicking, and he couldn’t make himself rise to the surface. The worst thing about it was that everybody was standing around watching with smiling interest—the boys in the swimming class, Boss, Nelson Senior, even his mother—and nobody made a move to help him. He woke up gasping for air and crying. He was sick then and barely made it into the bathroom before vomiting.
When it was time to get up and get dressed and go to school, he turned over and went back to sleep. He just didn’t have the heart to face another day. Let them come and get me, he thought.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp