Earl leaves a message I don’t get for some reason until the next day. He starts off by clearing his throat and says, “It’s Earl who lives across from your cul-de-sac and I’ve washed your container, the one you brought that soup in, and it’s waiting for you here. Just come on over and we’ll chit chat.”
He says that twice with the suggestion that if I come visit, I’ll get my container back. I hang up my phone and laugh thinking that my Tupperware is now in a hostage situation.
When I get there, his front room is the same as always except for a gaggle of deflated balloons dangling from the mantle. Another balloon, wrinkled and barely upright, is bright red and in the shape of the number 90. We missed his birthday, but I tried to make up for it by bringing the soup and homemade bread when Mary, down the street, called and said his cracked rib and pain meds mean he has no appetite, and we need to encourage him to eat.
But if there’s one thing he does have an appetite for, it’s talking. Forty-five minutes in I’ve learned all about his son in Nashville whose wife bought $300 boots and only wanted him for his money and kidnapped their kids to hideout in Texas for 3-4 years until a private detective finally found them. After that we move on to the dark side of the produce industry and the radiation that gets sprayed all over vegetables from Puerto Rico when they stop at those weigh stations. Two years a widower, he manages to keep up his diet of only organic foods and pours his special veggie cleaner religiously over each piece of produce he buys.
“Boy, you wouldn’t believe what comes off a bunch of broccoli,” he says in disgust.
When I interject for one minute to say something, he starts to fall asleep.
I keep turning towards his backyard but it’s February so I can’t see the koi this time. But they’re out there still. This summer he told my husband and me that they hide in the pipes until the thaw, then reappear with the first buds and spring storms. Languid and bright, they always look out of place to me in northern Utah, land of lake-stocked tiger muskies and rainbow trout. Instead, the koi look exotic, even otherworldly. A shock of deep orange on white, like a dazzling birthmark.
Folded into our conversation is the constant reminder that he’s looking for a companion; that Mary hit the nail on the head when she said his poor health is just loneliness. I mention a widow on the street behind me. He doesn’t know who I mean for a moment, then shudders a little and shakes his head.
“I need someone easy on the eyes.”
And when he says that he leans forward and his eyes get bright. “Nothing physical,” he says with exaggerated delicacy, “just someone to help take care of me.”
When I say I don’t know what he would judge as “easy on the eyes” (wondering, of course, what classifies as hot when you’re a nonagenarian), he says, “Well, you’re attractive. But you’ve got a husband and kids already to take care of.”
He laughs when he says this, but it’s a little delayed. He’s been on a website for older singles but is repulsed by the skin on most of the women’s necks in their profile photos. Baggy and gross, and he waves his hand below his neck to show just how low their skin hangs.
He wants someone who has taken care of herself, “you know, someone who eats organic, like me, works out,” and I think how I don’t know of a single older woman who still makes it to the gym. Or quite possibly, who ever did.
We first met Earl when he started taking walks around our tiny cul-de-sac across the street from his house. He would move slowly but gracefully and stop for a breather right in front of our house. Sometimes he moved his elbows up, then stretched his arms out slowly, as if lengthening out his whole body with each stride and pulling himself forward.
It occurred to me one day as I watched him that he looked as if he were swimming. Slowly, of course, but it was there. It was the movement of a man who was breaking through something, lifting his body up in slow arcs and controlling the fall. And these walks happened to coincide perfectly with the times my husband was outside doing yard work. Earl tried hard to make it look casual, shuttling himself around our little circle several times until it was as if some current pulled him over the lip of our driveway and within earshot of my husband. He wasn’t just walking; he was swimming. And it wasn’t coincidence; he had a destination.
Are we born swimming in our mother’s bodies to practice swimming in our own?
We’re 60% water. We’re used to moving against it. Our blood, sweat, and tears are all mainly water. The brain and heart are 73% water. Lungs: 83%. Even bones, the great metaphor for dryness, the arid landscape of our bodies, are about 31% water. Kids and babies have a higher percentage of water than adults. That radiant shine and elasticity of their skin says it all.
We call oceans and lakes “bodies of water,” but we never include ourselves in that description. Four years ago we lost our youngest son, a stillborn, and as we held his tiny body for a few precious hours, I marveled at the amount of water that seeped from his pores and began to soak the white blanket the nurses wrapped him in. One of the nurses told us that seeping of water from the body is called weeping, the body’s grief in letting go, the slow release of unneeded water. There was so much of it. Like a punctured kiddie pool, eventually leaving the plastic sad and deflated.
He didn’t need to swim in my body anymore. Or his own.
For Earl, every day he swims through loneliness. He breaks through it with his words, his chit chat, with anyone who will dive with him into a conversation. He swims through grief that is the same texture as loneliness. He swims through the breakdown of his body. One day he’ll sink to the bottom of it. And the truth is age means you swim in deeper waters. Just like how the pool slants and the water at one end is clearly deeper, even darker sometimes, things feel deeper, almost bottomless, the older you get.
Our cul-de-sac of five houses is like a tiny pond in the larger mass of the neighborhood. Tucked up near the top of a hill, we’re a quiet lot. We are the only ones in our circle that Earl knows, and we live the farthest from his house and slightly uphill. This means that the effort he makes to reach us is significant, especially when he feels stiff or is in pain.
He moves past the house of the girl who wants to sink to the bottom of her body at age twelve; who is done swimming and angry with her parents for reviving her and for keeping her afloat with rehab centers and counseling. What she moves against is not death, that far-off shore that we all squint at and wonder, but life, the blinding light and the touch of every breathing thing against her. Her own breath is her enemy. I think about this a long time. It makes every part of me ache. Her younger sister glides through second grade and swings in the front yard with her head back and eyes closed. For her it’s all back float, the sun on her face and her small frame buoyant, bobbing almost effortlessly on the surface.
He moves past the house of the middle-aged man who’s just married a twenty-something amateur model from Russia, his thinning hair and weathered skin next to her tiny blond frame. She’s his flotation device. His large house and the new white Audi she cruises in up and down the hill are hers. I can’t help but wonder when the air will leak out of both, or if it already has.
He moves past the house of the severely autistic young man who runs across the cul-de-sac once a year to deliver Christmas goodies to our front porch. Otherwise he circles close to home, swept up in the wake of his father’s close care. He checks the mail and rakes a few leaves on the front lawn, but most of the time he’s simply a blurry face in the passenger seat of the car that drives past us with his father’s quick wave.
And there it is again—wave: the body as water. How our hands mimic the undulations, the dance of ocean. A liquid movement towards or away from. As in, Here I am. Can I come closer? Or, There you go. I’ll miss you. A wave is a reaching. Usually for the shore of another person where we feel safe; where we can rest a moment.
One night months after our son’s death when it seemed the world had moved on and I was still unsteady and broken, I sat on our bed and sobbed to my husband that I was drowning in grief and it felt like no one cared; that everyone else stood on the shore, comfortable in their distance and happily waving as if I were just fine.
“People care, but they don’t know what to do to help you,” he said.
“They can at least reach out!” I hollered back in anger.
Maybe they were reaching, but I couldn’t see it. Waving then looked superficial; a trite gesture from neighbors at the store or from across the street on our evening walks. It reminded me of the famous poem “Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith, about a man who was out to sea all his life, drowning in the deep, dark waters, and what everyone assumed was simply a friendly wave was really a signal for help.
A wave, then, has its limitations. Like ocean waves, it has a strong pull but collapses into itself if not followed by another gesture or force, a movement towards something.
For me then, I was waving for help, but none seemed to come. Neighbors and friends waved from the shore, smiling. Our signals were there; they just weren’t enough.
When Earl waves to us after he’s lifted himself over and over again towards our house with all the muscular grace his body can muster, it’s impossible not to go to him. One evening in the fall we’re both raking leaves, and as Earl approaches, I set down my rake; Sean leans on his. We talk for what seems like an hour, and as it starts to get dark, I round up our boys for bed. But Earl is not done talking, so Sean stays. Later from the front window, I can just make out the outlines of them: Sean’s back, occasionally bending forward to nod or a laugh, and over his shoulder, Earl’s face, darkened but still animated. The rest of the leaves will have to wait for tomorrow. Sean is a good-natured, patient man, so he doesn’t mind, especially since he knows Earl needs this chat; that this is likely the most interaction he’ll have with another person all day. And it feels good to be needed this way. The rest of our neighbors barely say a word to us, but this one craves our company.
After he cracks his rib and can’t get out as much, Earl lets the chit chat come to him. Neighbors from up the street come by regularly to check on him, take him to doctor appointments, drop off dinners and, of course, talk, or rather, listen. One evening when I’m visiting with Mary at the bottom of my front steps, we see Earl across the street watching us.
“I’d better go over,” she says. “He has all of those words he needs to use up, and he doesn’t have anyone to spend them on.” Words as currency, as gold, bright, and precious as coins in a stream or as those spots on Earl’s koi that I’ve thought about all winter.
Years ago when the scoliosis was crushing my grandmother’s organs and she breathed in small gasps, we sat on her couch and I asked her if she was ready to die. It was a bold question, but we had that kind of relationship, and I knew she’d be honest in her answer. I don’t remember which of us said it, but one of us used the phrase “take the plunge,” and I pictured her diving, as gracefully as she ever was, out of her body and into another world. And her answer was more than yes. She made it clear that when the time came, she’d be anxious, even pleased. Whatever world we’re in, we swim through it. Sometimes laboriously; other times with ease.
It’s Spring now. Earl’s koi will shuttle themselves out of the cold, narrow pipes where they’ve been cramped all winter and ease themselves into the ponds in his backyard. A kind of re-birth. They will return as easily and perennially as the daffodils and crocuses. And koi, as it turns out, are some of the most affable fish you’ll find. They are not territorial or threatened by other fish. They do not eat smaller fish or drive them away. They live happily alongside crayfish, sturgeon, even goldfish. They can swim in the cool waters, content in their languid grace. As long as they’re properly fed, they can live nearly anywhere, in any company, and for a long time.
Earl is feeling better and has started edging his lawn again in ten minute increments. When I drive by on my way to the store or to pick up kids from piano, I try to pause for a moment. I know he’ll look up when he hears the motor. We’ll both stop a moment, smile, and wave.
—Sunni Brown Wilkinson(WACCAMAW)