Storyglossia Issue 38, February 2010.

Thirteen Steps

by Jesse Goolsby


Later, my father will meet my mother and me at the door with a scratcher lottery ticket worth five hundred dollars; he'll embrace us before noticing our defeated faces and slumped bodies; but right now, I'm a skinny thirteen-year-old at the packed community swimming pool. It's loud and sunny and we're at the part of the hour where everyone has to take a five minute break. Three of the four lifeguards jump in the water from their elevated chairs, relief spilling over their faces as they crest the surface and slick back their hair.

My diabetic mother wears her dry red swimsuit with her insulin pump hanging off her left hip. She reclines in her green and yellow plastic folding lounge chair near the three foot end, sunning a different type of cancer than will kill her. I've been swimming for hours, my palms a matted white, my shoulders secretly working a sunburn. I rest on the slatted wood bench near the shaded fence within reach of my mother. She works at the grocery store and I figure she's about as happy as she can be on one of her few days off, gently falling asleep amongst the laughter, chlorine, and frequent shouts to walk, not run. She rarely accompanies me the four blocks to the pool, but earlier in the day she appeared in the hallway with her long towel and cheap sunglasses. She's wrapped her gray insulin pump, but still reminds me that she has to keep it dry. Now, resting her head on her forearm, the straps on her bathing suit crisscross her freckled back in front of me. I see many of the same freckles on my belly. They're varying shades of brown, and one, just south of my belly button, pushes out like a balloon. I've tried to cut if off before with nail clippers, but it just bled all over. I peel back my shorts and glimpse at the whiteness beneath them. It's an incredible contrast to the already bronzed upper and lower half of my exposed body. My mother has nicknamed me Oreo, but only when we're at home. As I take in my middle section I check on the few gangly dark hairs that protrude around my genitals and up toward my bellybutton. I'm proud I won't be the last one to show.

I'm mostly scared of my body. I've started to wake up with damp circles on my shorts and the bed sheets. Dad's told me about wet dreams, in fact he's pretty open about all the sex stuff; it's just that I don't know the right questions to ask when he says, "ask anything." All around the edge of the pool kids begin to line up for the lifeguards who now climb up their perches; they've rotated a station each. One lifeguard, a stunning brunette, places the whistle in her lips and gives the signal as tens of kids leave the ground simultaneously. Her one-piece suit dips just low enough, presses just close enough to her breasts for me to fantasize about the lower, covered, two-thirds. I hear the other lifeguards call her Kylie. She's a couple years older and sits with her knees apart. Normally, I'm one of the first back in, but I've decided to let all my sliding droplets dry on the bench while my body calms down. I lean forward, placing my elbows on my knees. My mother shifts to rest on her back.

To my left, a man with brown shorts talks through the tall fence to a woman. They smile and their fingers meet through the cyclone diamonds. I can't hear what they say over the splashing. He looks about my dad's age, but this guy has muscles bulging everywhere, even his back and neck. The woman is in a dress, one of the types I've seen the women in the bank wearing. They stand close to one another and kiss. I tilt my head a little so I can see. This is no regular see-you-later-kiss; it's a mashing; they move their heads, pivoting back and forth. I see their tongues. They press their bodies rigidly against the fence. After a few seconds I look around to see if anyone else notices, but I'm the only one. I have no thoughts of appropriateness or public acceptability. This is education. The woman goes up on her toes, and still they kiss, all through one narrow gap. It's like nothing I've ever seen. Finally, they pull away, just their faces, and instead of smiling, they stare into one another, as if unfinished. The woman snaps her teeth and playfully sneers before turning away. The muscled man shakes the fence before spinning around quickly, his eyes catching mine on the swing toward the water. He strides two steps past me and my sunbathing mother, before throwing his body in the air. That's when I sense it. I don't know what's coming, but something's already off: the angle his legs form with his diving torso, the listing ash trees in the background, the wind, the smell of urine and sunscreen, everything mysteriously shifts, and it's happened so quickly that I'll remember it better than it actually occurred. The water absorbs the man's body until his waist, when there's a halting, spastic jolt that snaps his upper legs, calves and feet concave. I still sit, waiting for him to emerge until a man in jeans and a white button-up shirt across the pool launches into the water. In the hazy moments that follow kids still jump off the diving board and more laughs enter the air. The dressed man still has a ways to go to reach our side through the three feet of water and his stride is labored and hopeless and the only thing in the world in slow motion. In an eerie crescendo the screams arrive as the red blood cloud filters out into the clear blue water. Suddenly, I stand at the edge looking down into the gathering maroon. Help is still ten feet away, pulsing out waves in front of him. One of the waves spreads the flowing blood enough for me to see the muscled man's neck, cracked towards his right shoulder. Mother stands beside me, toes over the edge. Her body leans forward, but she doesn't push off. She has her arms out, but they reach helplessly down. Whistles join the shrieking, and the lifeguards scramble. Finally, the clothed man arrives and lifts the man up in a heap of water and blood and skin. My mother grabs my shoulder and spins me around, pushes me to the bench, but before I sit, I see the woman in the dress. She stands motionless in the middle of the sidewalk.

She turns back toward us like someone's called her name, eyebrows up, curious, still lost in a half smile. It's a tangible happiness that careens into oblivion the moment her eyes focus. She looks right at me and yet, somehow, she sees it all. Her pivot is fierce and quick in her heels and her right arm flies up like a dagger into the air, starting her sprint. Her face is locked in desire and confusion, and she covers the distance quickly, crashing into the fence bellowing vowels, no words. The lifeguards are there and one bends down to start CPR, but when he takes the man's chin in his hands the neck moves like jelly and the lifeguard lets go and looks at his own hands. Kylie says, "listen for breathing," but the other lifeguard just kneels there looking at his hands. I'm across the rattling fence from the woman, and for a couple seconds no one touches the man. There's an amazing space just around his body, a force field of nerves and fear and oddity. He doesn't look like a man, just a shell of wet muscle. This is the same mass that dominated the afternoon just seconds ago. Later, when I look back on my life, I'll understand that this is when I started to believe in human souls.

The paramedic on duty quickly takes over and tries to keep people away, says, "stay back." He listens for breathing, but it's over. Mom tries to get me out of there, but the manager says we need to stay to be interviewed. They empty the complex except for mom, me, the hero, and the lifeguards. They let the woman ride with the body to the hospital. Everyone is pretty quiet waiting for the cops to show. Mom and I keep to ourselves. The hero leans against the fence. They've given him a pair of trunks and a Red Cross T-Shirt. His wet clothes hang over two chairs. He doesn't look like a hero with a lumpy belly and receding hairline. Soon, he moves away from us, to the other side of the pool and cries. I can't hear him, but I see his shoulders bounce up and down. The lifeguards gather near the entrance. Kylie holds one of the boys in her arms. He has a far off stare even though he looks at his feet. They must be about the same age, but she cradles his head across her chest. She runs her fingers through his dark hair. She talks to him, and I can't hear the words but I imagine them to be, "It's okay, I'm here, I'm here." She might be singing to him, I don't know, but whatever it is I hate him, hate his weakness, hate the fact that he doesn't even know what's going on.

I don't want my mother to hug me or comfort me in front of Kylie and she doesn't; I'm a little upset she doesn't even try. When the cops show they talk to everyone else first because I'm thirteen. I see the hero walk out under the late afternoon sun, dazed. I see the lifeguards stroll out one at a time. Kylie doesn't look over. A short, plump cop talks to my mother, and when he gets to me I can tell he's trying to sell my importance, probably something my mother said to him.

"Okay buddy," he says. "This is important. Did someone push the man?"

"No," I say. "He jumped."

"Thanks," he says, and starts to rise.

"Ask him another," my mother says. "Please."

I'm embarrassed. I know my standing in the world. The cop sits back down. He has nothing to ask, he knows the drill, has all the answers he needs, so he looks up to the sky for a few seconds, searching.

"Um," he says, "How far do you think the woman was away from the fence?"

The question surprises me. I'm not ready. I think about the man's dive, the neck angle, the bag of limp limbs thrown on the no diving picture.

"How far?" he repeats. He glances at my mother who nods her head. Still, I want to get it right.

"In feet?" I mumble.

"Whatever son," he says. I have no idea what the answer is, but I feel the need to say something. For some unknown reason I think of my age, it's the only number I can conjure.

"Thirteen," I say. "Steps." He jots it down and goes.

On the way home, my mother, usually prone to lectures, stays quiet. She doesn't touch me. It's still hot, and the shadows of the overhanging oaks flash on and off us. My tired mind negotiates the thousands of images still whirling around me. As we near our home my mother stops short and says, "ice cream."

As we reach the door, it flies open, and my father, before taking us in, wraps his arms around us and praises the Lord over the five-hundred he won by scratching the correct four hearts on Hearts are Wild!.

It's just my father and I in the car, off for ice cream. My mother couldn't take any more of the day. It's dark now, and although my father appreciates what we went through, he can't stop talking about the five-hundred, how he can get new tires on the truck, take my mother and me to K-Mart for new clothes, maybe even install a basketball hoop over the garage. I don't dare interrupt him. I'm in awe of his enthusiasm. I've never seen him this happy. He rolls his window down, and I roll mine as well. The dry wind blows through my hair and over my right forearm and its growing blonde hairs. All the city lights appear new and clean. I listen and wait; he's now up to a new television with a remote control, a leather couch, a motorcycle. I wait, but I don't know how to switch the conversation. That's what I really want. I want to get to the point where he says, "ask anything," because I'm ready. I imagine myself in Kylie's arms, her voice, "I'm here, I'm here," the smell of chlorine on her summer body, and I want to know what it takes to get there, to that spot.

Copyright©2010 Jesse Goolsby

Jesse Goolsby's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Our Stories, Harpur Palate, Breakwater Review, Paradigm, Vestal Review, Stirring, War, Literature & the Arts, Oak Bend Review, and various anthologies. His short fiction piece "Touch" received the 2010 Richard Bausch Short Fiction Prize, and his story "Derrin of the North" won the 2009 John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction. His various projects can be viewed at

Interview with Jesse Goolsby