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Strong Swimmer

            As soon as they launched the aluminum canoe from the pier, Roy heard a gurgling sound, looked down, and saw water leaking into the bottom of the boat, glimmering in the starlight. “Uncle Abel,” said Roy . “We’re taking on water.”

            “No,” said Abel, dipping his paddle into the dark water and pulling. “That’s rainwater from last week.”

            “I’m watching it come in,” said Roy . Somewhere nearby a duck did one of its subdued, nighttime quacks.

            Abel didn’t say anything, so Roy started rowing too. He decided that Abel’s denial wasn’t really a denial of the fact, but more of a denial that the fact was a problem, and since it was Abel’s boat, Roy figured he’d let Abel decide what was a problem and what wasn’t.

            As they rowed further from the shore, the only sound was the soft splashing of their paddles. There were no other boats on the water. The cottages on the bank were silent and calm, their owners either sleeping or a hundred miles away in their real homes in treeless housing developments.

            Abel didn’t speak. Roy wasn’t sure a canoe trip out to the sandbar off the South end of the big island to watch the peak night of a meteor shower warranted such solemnity, but it was Abel’s idea, so if he wanted it quiet, Roy wasn’t going to push for conversation. Abel was a bad conversationalist anyway. He only liked to talk about two subjects: meals he’d recently eaten, regardless of quality, and bland lies about the year he spent in Japan when he was nineteen.

            Roy looked up at the expanse of stars overhead. Yep, there was a meteor. And there was another one. Pretty staggering, those meteors. Roy wanted to say something about the meteors to Abel, but he didn’t want to sound too fancy about it. While he was trying to choose the right words, there was a popping noise, a sudden bubbling, and the canoe was almost gone before Roy even realized what was happening.

            Abel sighed and rolled sideways out of the sinking boat, disappearing into the water. Roy remained seated while the water crawled up his legs, over his lap, and then the canoe dropped out from under him into the depths of the lake and he was left trying his amateur best to tread water. “Swim for the island,” said Abel, surfacing next to him, his thin silver hair plastered to his forehead.

            “I don’t know if I can make it that far,” said Roy , looking at the black looming shape of the island and spitting water out of his mouth. He was already feeling winded and his style of swimming had always been more about keeping his head above water for short periods of time than getting from point A to point B.

            “Are you kidding?” asked Abel.

            “I’m not a strong swimmer,” said Roy .

            “It’s only a hundred yards away,” said Abel. “And we’ll hit the sandbar before that and be able to wade. You’ll be fine.” He swam off with even, powerful strokes and Roy struggled after him. The water was cool and still, but Roy couldn’t help but feel a little panicky. He kept waiting for his adrenaline to kick in and make everything easy, which didn’t happen, but a good fifty yards from the island, Abel stopped and said, “Here’s the sandbar,” and stood with his head and shoulders above the surface, waiting for Roy .

            As Roy paddled up, gasping and coughing, Abel grimaced and said, “Ouch.”

            “What?” asked Roy , standing upright and blowing water out of his nose. The feeling of the sand under his shoes filled him with relief.

            “I don’t know,” said Abel. “Let’s get to shore.”

            Roy and Abel waded the rest of the way to the island and collapsed on the sand among the cat tails and dried up seaweed. The island was densely wooded and the trees came right up to the edge of the little strip of beach. Lying on his back and panting, Roy looked up, his right forearm resting on his forehead. There went a meteor. And another. And another.

            “Now what?” asked Roy . Abel didn’t respond. Roy sat up and looked at his uncle, who was lying prone on the beach with his eyes closed, his breath hissing in and out of him. “Abel,” said Roy , shaking him by the arm. “Wake up.” But Abel wouldn’t wake up.

            Roy knelt next to Abel and leaned close to his face, looking for any clue as to what was wrong with him. “Abel,” he said again, louder. “Uncle Abel!”

            “What’s wrong?” asked a man’s voice from the woods.

            Roy ’s heart jolted and he jumped to his feet. “Who’s there?” he asked, his voice cracking. He couldn’t see anything among the trees and dense underbrush.

            “I can’t tell you my name,” said the voice. It sounded close. “And I can’t let you see me either.”

            “Why not?” asked Roy , stooping to pick up a stick to defend himself with. Once he picked it up, he realized how flimsy it was, but he held onto it anyway.

“Because,” said the voice. “I intend to rob a bank and I’m in the middle of the part of my plan where I stay out of sight for a while so that everyone forgets about me so that when the bank is eventually robbed, I’m not a suspect that leaps to mind.”

Roy found this explanation comforting, somehow. He said, “My uncle won’t wake up. Our canoe sank and we swam here, but now he won’t wake up.”

“Freshwater lobsters,” said the robber. “The young females bite. Some people are very susceptible.”

“Oh,” said Roy , looking down at Abel, whose mouth was curved down in an expression of mild displeasure. “I don’t think it was that.”

“Did he mention any pain before he fell asleep?” asked the robber.

“He did say ‘ouch’ while we were wading,” said Roy . “But that could have been about anything.”

“He needs medical attention,” said the robber. “If you’re susceptible, the bite of the young female freshwater lobster can be fatal within just a few hours.”

“What can we do?” asked Roy . Abel’s hair was curling as it dried and sand stuck to his cheeks. “Do you have a boat?”

“You’ll have to swim for it,” said the robber. “Swim for shore and call for help.”

“But I’m not a strong swimmer,” said Roy . “Not a strong swimmer at all. I barely made it here after the canoe sunk. How’d you get out here? Probably a boat, huh? Can we use your boat?”

“What strokes do you know?” asked a girl’s voice from the woods.

Roy was startled. “Who’s that now?” he asked.

“My partner,” said the robber.

“I’m also his girlfriend,” said the partner. “But he’s all business these days. What strokes do you know?”

“None, really,” said Roy . “I just sort of, you know, swim.”

“Ever heard of the elementary backstroke?” asked the partner.

“No,” said Roy . “I don’t know any strokes. I’m not a strong swimmer. Don’t you have a boat out here?”

The two voices in the woods dipped too low for Roy to make out what they were saying, but he could hear them going back and forth, rising and falling like the tiny waves lapping at the beach behind him. He hoped they were discussing letting him use their boat, if they had one. He thought the freshwater lobster thing sounded too bizarre to be true, but there was definitely something wrong with Abel and Roy wanted to get him home as soon as possible. Roy looked up. Meteor, meteor, meteor, meteor.

            The bushes parted in front of Roy and a small young woman in a pair of men’s cargo shorts and a Halloween sweater with a mummy and a pumpkin on it stepped out the woods. She walked past Roy on bare feet and squatted next to Abel, tapping him on the forehead with her middle finger.

            “Hello,” said Roy .

            The robber’s partner looked up at him and said, “The elementary backstroke is a good stroke for people who aren’t strong swimmers. This is how you do the elementary backstroke.” She stretched out flat on her back on the sand, her arms at her sides. Then she said, “Monkey,” and brought her hands up under her armpits like a monkey scratching itself. She spread her legs apart. “Airplane,” she said, and she extended her arms straight out. “Pencil,” she said, and she swung her arms down to her side and clapped her legs back together. “And then you glide. And then you do it again. Monkey, airplane, pencil, monkey, airplane, pencil.” She demonstrated the motions as she narrated them. Then she got to her feet and brushed the sand off her calves and the seat of her shorts. “Good luck,” she said without smiling. “And please try to forget my face.” She parted the thorny bushes with her hands and stepped back into the darkness of the woods.

            “Hold on,” said Roy . There was no response. “Hello?” he said. “Are you still there?” Nothing. He turned and looked out over the lake. The lights of the cottages on the shore seemed impossibly far away. He looked down at Abel and thought that his breathing sounded more labored, but maybe it was just his imagination. Or maybe it wasn’t.

            Roy waded into the lake, his wet jeans clinging to his legs. He shivered, took a breath, and turned to face the island. Abel’s body was a dark, inert lump on the beach. Roy lowered himself backwards onto the surface of the water and floated. “Monkey,” he whispered, copying the partner’s motions. Something bit him on the thigh and he ignored it. “Airplane,” he said, his arms out, his legs spread. Something bit him on the hip and he ignored it too. Three meteors flew across the sky as if racing for Roy ’s entertainment. “Pencil,” said Roy , his arms and legs whooshing through the water as he straightened his body. And then he glided.

Discussion Questions

  • What good is it to be a strong swimmer when there an infinite number of things out there that can get you?

  • Why are some people so enamored with their own shortcomings?

  • Based on what you know of the bank robber and his partner, what do you think their odds of success are?

  • Would you rather be susceptible to the bite of the young female freshwater lobster or a weak swimmer?

  • Did you learn how to do the elementary backstroke as a result of listening to this story?