Welcome to Nine Weeks of Strange’s 3rd story, “Swim”, a story about a recovering alcoholic and the dark secrets she learns about her brother upon his death. This is the most popular story in the book so far, per reader reactions and so on, and it is my favorite of the collection as well.
This week’s posts will explore death, dying, near-death experiences, addiction, immortality and much more.
The following is an “in-person” vid introduction and excerpt of the story. A text excerpt can be found under the vid.
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Excerpt from “Swim”, (c) Celeste Ramos, 2009 – Women in Strange Places: Stories
Ice water fell from the sky at around four o’clock. I told George to meet me at the bar that was next to my hotel. It was an after-work bar where people came to wish they’d never been employed. I took a booth in the back and watched it rain for an hour.
When four met five I had a glass of heady ale in front of me. As I chugged it I looked up and saw George walk in through the neon and sticker door.
“Good to see you again,” George said. He kissed me on the cheek and sat down. His car keys sounded like broken wind chimes when they hit the table.
“How are you?”
I hated when people asked me that. I shrugged it off and looked around me, to say, what’s it look like?
“Are you having anything?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
It was so hard for me to make conversation with a stranger. I used to be so good at it when I was still working in sales.
But once that last beer kicked in, I knew where to start.
“Who are you and how do you know my brother?”
He smiled. “George Taylor. I’m thirty-three. I’m from upstate New York. My parents were missionaries. That a good start?”
“Swimming is my life. I love it. I met Elliot when I was out one day at the lake. He was the only person there, he was sketching. It was at the end of winter, just barely spring, and the water had a nice bite to it.”
I listened as his voice painted a wonderful picture for me: my darling Elliot sketching the rusted metal trees of winter, calm as could be.
“Well, I wasn’t familiar with the lake and just jumped into any old spot. There were a ton of rocks there and I banged my head, knocked myself right out. Elliot saved me and we were friends ever since.” He sighed. “After a while, he went on some trip to an Indian reservation in New York, not far from where I grew up actually. When he came back he said he had to buy that house.”
“He would never, in a million years, want a house,” I said.
“Well he wanted that one. I came to live with him after me and my wife divorced. He offered me the bottom floor. That’s the way it was for about a year and a half, until he got sick.”
A year and a half. Why hadn’t Elliot told me? I tried to imagine him dealing with housework and decorating. He must have done a wonderful job.
“And he got sick last summer right?” I asked. How could I have forgotten?
“Yeah, that’s right.” George rubbed his sleepy face. “He hated doctors.”
“He kept complaining about his chest hurting until finally I asked my ex-sister in law to check him out. From there on out he just got worse and worse.”
I downed the rest of the beer as I ran from the image of Elliot in pain.
George leaned in and asked, “Are you alright?” He asked me in such a way that I felt in the loving company of a priest. I hadn’t felt that way since the last time I had a heart to heart with Elliot.
“Fine,” I said.
“Lynn, I know we’ve just met, but the way Elliot spoke about you all the time … I feel like I’m already close to you. Does that make sense?”
“No, listen.” He leaned in closer this time and took my right hand. “I’ve traveled a lot in my life. I’ve seen and done many things for my age, met many people. There are few things that don’t change, and to me, it’s when someone’s hiding something.”
I took my hand back from him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You drink pretty fast, don’t you?” He didn’t ask in a judgmental tone.
I felt as one does in a dream where they’ve shown up to work completely naked. “It’s none of your business, George. I’m fine.”
“I know I can’t force you to talk to me. That’s fine.” His dark eyes dropped for a moment and then came back to mine. “I’m sorry. I just want us to be friends. If you need someone to listen – ”
“Thanks, George, but you know what?” Don’t shove him away, don’t do it, I pleaded to myself. “My brother just died. And at every corner I turn there’s all this stuff I learn about him. I’m upset. I’m going to drink.”
Poor George. I came to find out later that this was a soft spot for him. His ex-wife had been a terrible alcoholic.
He leaned back against the seat. Silent minutes moved past us. I was fidgety as George was still. He stared at me off and on.
“Do you want to come see the house?” He asked finally. “It’s nice. Nothing fancy, but it’s nice. Really quiet. Maybe it would be good for you to spend a week or two there, with me. Maybe it would be good for both of us.”
“And the boxes?” I asked sharply. This caught him off guard, though I realized in my rising stupor that he hadn’t mentioned them.
“Well … they’ll be there for you too.”
“What’s in them?”
He shook his head. “Nothing I’m going to try and explain to you if you’re not sober. Really, if you’re going to drink the whole time you’re in town it might be best to just mail them to you – ”
“Wait a minute, who the hell do you think you are? Elliot was my brother and he left those things for me. I think I have the right to see them when I damn please!”
“There’s a lot you don’t know, Lynn. I don’t want to sound so mysterious but it’s just a matter of fact. Please, for the sake of his memory, you need to be there for this. He left you some very special things. Very important things.” George rose and gave me a tender smile. His eyes were a little angry at me. “I have to go. Just tell me when you want to come by. Okay?”
I wasn’t sure what awaited me. But as near to the bottom as I was, I had to get something right. It was my duty as his sister to go be at the house, and George was right – I had to be present.
“I’m staying next door,” I said.
“Come get me tomorrow afternoon?”
“I’ll call you when I’m on the way over. And, just out of curiosity, do you happen to know what happened to a fish Elliot had in his room?”
“Yeah. I have it in my room. Why?”
He looked relieved when he said, “Oh good. I was worried the hospital had tossed the poor thing. I gave it to Elliot.”
I nodded without concern. It was just a fish.
“I’ll see you,” George said, and walked away.
Soon after he was gone I was alone at the bar. I felt like an old party streamer tangled in a tree limb.
If I could get anything right in my imagination about Elliot owning a house, it would be situated in the middle of nowhere. This meant I couldn’t go to the store, or for too long a walk, and I definitely couldn’t run out for something to eat.
I carried a picture of him in my purse, and I told it that my trip to the store down the street would be the last time.
I wandered the aisles for a half hour as I stared at the mad array of liquors, beers, wines, vodkas. In the long hall of fridges that housed the beer, I stared at the shiny twelve and twenty-four packs, the frosted, rotund aluminum jumbo cans, and the variations of brown, green and red bottles. It felt like these mosaics of poison were pressed against the glass, like fans of me, all wanting to get inside and ingest me.
I ended up back at the hotel room drowned in wine. At one point during my silent debauchery I thought I saw Elliot cross from the bathroom door to the closet, just around the corner. I could even smell his old cologne.
“It wasn’t your fault, get off that bottle,” I heard him say.
No, it wasn’t mine, that’s what Elliot always said. I started drinking a few years after our sister Shirley drowned in a river. I was thirteen and she was eleven. I couldn’t swim fast enough to save her. She was right at my grasp, but it was as if every time her frantic hand was within an inch of mine, the current would yank her away from me hard. I had to fight to catch up to her and not let myself get ripped away, but it was useless. I was exhausted. I could only watch as the river rolled her around in its torrents that sounded like a million windows breaking at once, and then her thrashing frame was gone.
I was depressed for several years until I discovered drinking. I drank to drown out Shirley’s screams. Then I drank to get through classes and break-ups, movies, and drives home. I drank to get to and out of work.
Now I drank because I couldn’t protect Elliot, my remaining sibling. I drank because everything was my fault.
I didn’t want George to know this. The humiliation was so deep whenever someone found me out in some parking lot or hanging off a stool at a bar. I was afraid that George wanted to be my friend. I knew that if he met the real me, he’d want to forget I was Elliot’s sister. Elliot, who had done nothing wrong to anyone, and had lived his twenty-eight years in peace.
On the way to the house, Langford’s drab streets gave way to the land surrounding it. The nothing of trees warped the horizon as the main road wandered through them. I had a dry mouth and a head a mile wide. George had bags under his eyes. After some time I made the decision to talk, even if it was just to hear the sound of my voice.
I shoved mint gum into my mouth before I spoke. I even gave a little smile.
“Where are we going?”
“The house is in a bit of a limbo. It’s not quite part of Langford, not quite part of Alter Grove. That’s the next town to the west. Usually I tell people I live in the woods.”
I nodded. “How are you today?”
“Tired. I didn’t get to swim this morning. I haven’t slept.”
He looked over at me periodically, saying, “Too many things on my mind. Elliot, and then comes the problem of what to do with the house. I’m not going to stay there… not for much longer. I don’t know what to do with myself anymore, you know that feeling? Sometimes I worry I’ve done it all. There’s so much in my head. I get so agitated when I don’t swim. I can’t focus.”
“Mmhm. It’s a necessity for me. I swim four times a day.” He leaned forward onto the steering wheel. It looked like he was trying to stretch his lower back.
“Where do you swim?”
“In the lake outside the house.”
“The house is on a lake?” I looked out the window, trying to imagine it. A house on a lake reminded me of summer and lush trees, barbecues and insect bites. Not ice.
“Where’d he get the money?”
“I fronted it to him. He had his savings too.”
George made a left turn onto a dirt and gravel road. The house became visible immediately, along with the shore of the lake. It was an enormous stretch of glassy water. The house was modestly sized and colored, buttoned into the hilly land.
I stared at the lake, thick with cold, as it was jostled by the breeze.