By John Cheever
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By John Cheever
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it on the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it in the wildlife preserve, where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.
“I drank too much” said Donald Westerhazy, at the edge of the Westerhazys’ pool.
“We all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill.
“It must have been the wine,” said Helen Westerhazy. “I drank too much of that claret.”
The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green. It was a fine day. In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud, so like a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship—that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack. The sun was hot. Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender man—he seemed to have the special slenderness of youth—and while he was far from young, he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag, the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather. He had been swimming, and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously, as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It all seemed to flow into his chest. His own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that, by taking a dog-leg to the southwest, he could reach his home by water.
His life was not confining, and the delight he took in this thought could not be explained by its suggestion of escape. In his mind he saw, with a cartographer’s eye, a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda, after his wife. He was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool, but he was determinedly original, and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful, and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.
He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had a simple contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every other stroke or every fourth stroke, and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances, but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs, and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. Being embraced and sustained by the light-green water seemed not as much a pleasure as the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb—he never used the ladder—and started across the lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going, he said he was going to swim home.
The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary, but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams’, the Hammers’, the Lears’, the Howlands’, and the Crosscups’. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers’ and come, after a short portage, to the Levys’, the Welchers’, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans’, the Sachs’, the Biswangers’, the Shirley Abbott’s, the Gilmartins’, and the Clydes’. The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high, and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.
He went through a hedge that separated the Westerhazys’ land from the Grahams’, walked under some flowering apple trees, passed the shed that housed their pump and filter, and came out at the Grahams’ pool. “Why, Neddy,” Mrs. Graham said, “what a marvellous surprise. I’ve been trying to get you on the phone all morning. Here, let me get you a drink.” He saw then, like any explorer, that the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever going to reach his destination. He did not want to mystify or seem rude to the Grahams, nor did he have time to linger there. He swam the length of their pool and joined them in the sun. A few minutes later, two carloads of friends arrived from Connecticut. During the uproarious reunions he was able to slip away. He went down by the front of the Grahams’ house, stepped over a thorny hedge, and crossed a vacant lot to the Hammers. Mrs. Hammer, looking up from her roses, saw him swim by, although she wasn’t quite sure who it was. The Lears heard him splashing past the open windows of their living room. The Howlands and the Crosscups were away. After leaving the Crosscups’, he crossed Ditmar Street and started for the Bunkers’, where he could hear, even at that distance, the noise of a party.
The water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair. The Bunkers’ pool was on a rise, and he climbed some stairs to a terrace where twenty-five or thirty men and women were drinking. The only person in the water was Rusty Towers, who floated there on a rubber raft. Oh, how bonny and lush were the banks of the Lucinda River! Prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters while caterer’s men in white coats passed them cold gin. Overhead, a red de Havilland trainer was circling around and around and around in the sky, with something like the glee of a child in a swing. Ned felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch. In the distance he heard thunder.
As soon as Enid Bunker saw him, she began to scream, “Oh, look who’s here! What a marvellous surprise! When Lucinda said that you couldn’t come, I thought I’d die. . . .” She made her way to him through the crowd, and when they had finished kissing, she led him to the bar, a progress that was slowed by the fact that he stopped to kiss eight or ten other women and shake the hands of as many men. A smiling bartender he had seen at a hundred parties gave him a gin-and-tonic, and Ned stood by the bar for a moment, anxious not to get stuck in any conversation that would delay his voyage. When he seemed about to be surrounded, he dove in and swam close to the side, to avoid colliding with Rusty’s raft. He climbed out at the far end of the pool, bypassed the Tomlinsons with a broad smile, and jogged up the garden path. The gravel cut his feet, but this was the only unpleasantness.
The party was confined to the pool, and as he went toward the house he heard the brilliant, watery sound of voices fade, heard the noise of a radio from the Bunkers’ kitchen, where someone was listening to a ball game. Sunday afternoon. He made his way through the parked cars and down the grassy border of their driveway to Alewives’ Lane. He did not want to be seen on the road in his bathing trunks, but there was no traffic, and he made the short distance to the Levys’ driveway, marked with a “Private Property” sign and a green tube for the Times. All the doors and windows of the big house were open, but there were no signs of life, not even a barking dog. He went around the side of the house to the pool and saw that the Levys had only recently left. Glasses and bottles and dishes of nuts were on a table at the deep end, where there was a bathhouse or gazebo, hung with Japanese lanterns. After swimming the pool, he got himself a glass and poured a drink. It was his fourth or fifth drink, and he had swum nearly half the length of the Lucinda River. He felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone, pleased with everything.
It would storm. The stand of cumulus cloud—that city—had risen and darkened, and while he sat there, he heard thunder. The de Havilland trainer was still circling overhead, and it seemed to Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure in the afternoon; but when there was another peal of thunder, he took off for home. A train whistle blew, and he wondered what time it had gotten to be. Four? Five? He thought of the station where, at that hour, a waiter, his tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some flowers wrapped in newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local. It was suddenly growing dark—it was that moment when the pinheaded birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm’s approach. From the crown of an oak at his back, there was a fine noise of rushing water, as if a spigot there had been turned on. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms? What was the meaning of his excitement when the front door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs? Why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent? Why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings? There was an explosion, a smell of cordite, and rain lashed the Japanese lanterns that Mrs. Levy had bought in Kyoto the year before last, or was it the year before that?
He stayed in the Levys’ gazebo until the storm had passed. The rain had cooled the air and he shivered. The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer, the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a sadness at this sign of autumn. He braced his shoulders, emptied his glass, and started for the Welchers’ pool. This meant crossing the Pasterns’ riding ring, and he was surprised to find it overgrown with grass and all the jumps dismantled. Had the Pasterns sold their horses or gone away for the summer and put them out to board? He seemed to remember having heard something about the Pasterns and their horses, but the memory was unclear. On he went, barefoot, through the wet grass to the Welchers’, where he found that their pool was dry.
This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like an explorer who is seeking a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream. He was disappointed and mystified. It was common enough to go away for the summer, but people never drained their pools. The Welchers had definitely gone away. The pool furniture was folded, stacked, and covered with a tarpaulin. The bathhouse was locked. All the windows of the house were shut, and when he went around to the driveway in front, he saw a “For Sale” sign nailed to a tree. When had he last heard from the Welchers—when, that is, had he and Lucinda last regretted an invitation to dine with them? It seemed only a week or so ago. Was his memory failing, or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth? In the distance he heard the sound of a tennis game. This cheered him, cleared away all his apprehensions, and let him regard the overcast sky and the cold air with indifference. This was the day that Neddy Merrill swam across the county. That was the day! He started off then for his most difficult portage.
Had you gone for a Sunday-afternoon ride that day, you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulder of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, or had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool? Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway beer cans, rags, and blowout patches, exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful. He had known when he started that this was a part of his journey—it had been on his imaginary maps—but, confronted with the lines of traffic worming through the summery light, he found himself unprepared. He was laughed at, jeered at, a beer can was thrown at him, and he had no dignity or humor to bring to the situation. He could have gone back, back to the Westerhazys’, where Lucinda would still be sitting in the sun. He had signed nothing, vowed nothing, pledged nothing—not even to himself. Why, believing as he did that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey, even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious? He could not go back, he could not even recall with any clearness the green water at the Westerhazys’, the sense of inhaling the day’s components, the friendly and relaxed voices saying that they had drunk too much. In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible.
An old man, tooling down the highway at fifteen miles an hour, let him get to the middle of the road, where there was a grass divider. Here he was exposed to the ridicule of the northbound traffic, but after ten or fifteen minutes he was able to cross. From here he had only a short walk to the Recreation Center at the edge of the village of Lancaster, where there were some handball courts and a public pool.
The effect of water on voices, the illusion of brilliance and suspense, was the same here as it had been at the Bunkers’, but the sounds here were louder, harsher, and more shrill, and as soon as he entered the crowded enclosure he was confronted with regimentation. “all swimmers must take a shower before using the pool. all swimmers must use the foot-bath. all swimmers must wear their identification discs.” He took a shower, washed his feet in a cloudy and bitter solution, and made his way to the edge of the water. It stank of chlorine and looked to him like a sink. A pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers blew police whistles at what seemed to be regular intervals, and abused the swimmers through a public-address system. Neddy remembered the sapphire water at the Bunkers’ with longing, and thought that he might contaminate himself—damage his own prosperousness and charm—by swimming in this murk, but he reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River. He dove, scowling with distaste, into the chlorine, and had to swim with his head above water to avoid collisions, but even so he was bumped into, splashed, and jostled. When he got to the shallow end, both lifeguards were shouting at him: “Hey, you, you without the identification disc, get outa the water!” He did. They had no way of pursuing him, and he went through the reek of sun-tan oil and chlorine, out through the hurricane fence and past the handball courts. Crossing the road, he entered the wooded part of the Halloran estate. The woods were not cleared, and the footing was treacherous and difficult, until he reached the lawn and the clipped beech hedge that encircled the pool.
The Hallorans were friends, an elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists. They were zealous reformers, but they were not Communists, and yet when they were accused, as they sometimes were, of subversion, it seemed to gratify and excite them. Their beech hedge was yellow, and he guessed it was suffering from a blight, like the Levys’ maple. He called “Hullo, hullo,” to warn the Hallorans of his approach. The Hallorans, for reasons that had never been explained to him, did not wear bathing suits. No explanations were in order, really. Their nakedness was a detail in their uncompromising zeal for reform, and he stepped politely out of his trunks before he went through the opening in the hedge.
Mrs. Halloran, a stout woman with white hair and a serene face, was reading the Times. Mr. Halloran was taking beech leaves out of the water with a scoop. They seemed neither surprised nor displeased to see him. Their pool was perhaps the oldest in the neighborhood, a fieldstone rectangle fed by a brook. It had no filter or pump, and its waters were the opaque gold of the stream.
“I’m swimming across the county,” Ned said.
“Why, I didn’t know one could!” exclaimed Mrs. Halloran.
“Well, I’ve made it from the Westerhazys’,” Ned said. “That must be about four miles.”
He left his trunks at the deep end, walked to the shallow end, and swam back. As he was pulling himself out of the water, he heard Mrs. Halloran say, “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.”
“My misfortunes?” Ned asked. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Why, we heard that you’d sold the house, and that your poor children . . .”
“I don’t recall having sold the house,” Ned said, “and the girls are at home.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Halloran sighed. “Yes . . .”
Her voice filled the air with an unseasonable melancholy, and Ned said briskly, “Thank you for the swim.”
“Well, have a nice trip,” said Mrs. Halloran.
Beyond the hedge, he pulled on his trunks and fastened them. They were loose, and he wondered if during the space of an afternoon he could have lost some weight. He was cold, and he was tired, and the naked Hallorans and their dark water had depressed him. The swim was too much for his strength, but how could he have guessed this, sliding down the banister that morning and sitting in the Westerhazys’ sun? His arms were lame. His legs felt rubbery and ached at the joints. The worst of it was the cold in his bones, and the feeling that he might never be warm again. Leaves were falling around him and he smelled woodsmoke on the wind. Who would be burning wood in the fireplace at this time of year?
He needed a drink. Whiskey would warm him, pick him up, carry him through the last of his journey, refresh his feeling that it was original and valorous to swim across the county. Channel swimmers took brandy. He needed a stimulant. He crossed the lawn in front of the Hallorans’ house and went down a little path to where they had built a house for their only daughter, Helen, and her husband, Eric Sachs. The Sachs’ pool was small, and he found Helen and her husband there.
“Oh, Neddy!” Helen said. “Did you lunch at Mother’s?”
“Not really,” Ned said. “I did stop to see your parents.” This seemed to be explanation enough. “I’m terribly sorry to break in on you like this, but I’ve taken a chill, and I wonder if you’d give me a drink.”
“Why, I’d love to,” Helen said, “but there hasn’t been anything in this house to drink since Eric’s operation. That was three years ago.”
Was he losing his memory, had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend had been ill? Ned’s eyes slipped from Eric’s face to his abdomen, where he saw three pale, sutured scars, two of them at least a foot long. Gone was his navel, and what, Neddy thought, would the roving hand, bed-checking one’s gifts at 3 a.m., make of a belly with no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession?
“I’m sure you can get a drink at the Biswangers’,” Helen said. “They’re having an enormous do. You can hear it from here. Listen!”
She raised her head, and from across the road, the lawns, the gardens, the woods, the fields he heard again the brilliant noise of voices over water. “Well, I’ll get wet,” he said, still feeling that he had no freedom of choice about his means of travel. He dove into the Sachs’ cold water, and, gasping, close to drowning, made his way from one end of the pool to the other. “Lucinda and I want terribly to see you,” he said over his shoulder, his face set toward the Biswangers’. “We’re sorry it’s been so long, and we’ll call you very soon.”
He crossed some fields to the Biswangers’ and the sounds of revelry there. They would be honored to give him a drink, they would be happy to give him a drink, they would, in fact, be lucky to give him a drink. The Biswangers invited him and Lucinda for dinner four times a year, six weeks in advance. They were always rebuffed, and yet they continued to send out their invitations, unwilling to comprehend the rigid and undemocratic realities of their society. They were the sort of people who discussed the price of things at cocktails, exchanged market tips during dinner, and after dinner told dirty stories to mixed company. They did not belong to Neddy’s set—they were not even on Lucinda’s Christmas-card list. He went toward their pool with feelings of indifference, charity, and some unease, since it seemed to be getting dark and these were the longest days of the year. The party when he joined it was noisy and large. Grace Biswanger was the kind of hostess who asked the ophthalmologist, the veterinarian, the real-estate dealer, and the dentist. No one was swimming, and the twilight, reflected on the water of the pool, had a wintery gleam. There was a bar, and he started for it. When Grace Biswanger saw him, she came toward him, not affectionately, as he had every right to expect, but bellicosely.
“Why, this party has everything,” she said loudly, “including a gate-crasher.”
She could not deal him a social blow—there was no question about this—and he did not flinch. “As a gate-crasher,” he asked politely, “do I rate a drink?”
“Suit yourself,” she said.
She turned her back on him and joined some guests, and he went to the bar and ordered a whiskey. The bartender served him, but rudely. His was a world in which the caterer’s men kept the social score, and to be rebuffed by a part-time barkeep meant that he had suffered some loss of social esteem. Or perhaps the man was new and uninformed. Then at his back he heard Grace say, “They went broke overnight—nothing but income—and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars. . . .” She was always talking about money. It was worse than eating your peas off a knife. He dove into the pool, swam its length, and went away.
The next pool on his list, the last but two, belonged to his old mistress, Shirley Abbott. If he had suffered any injuries at the Biswangers’, they would be cured here. Love—sexual roughhouse, in fact—was the supreme elixir, the painkiller, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart. They had had an affair last week, last month, last year. He couldn’t remember. It was he who had broken it off, his was the upper hand, and as he stepped through the gate of the wall that surrounded her pool it seemed to be his pool, since the lover, particularly the illicit lover, enjoys the possessions of his mistress with an authority unknown to holy matrimony. She was there, her hair the color of brass, but her figure, at the edge of the lighted, cerulean water, excited in him no profound memories. It had been, he thought, a lighthearted affair, although she wept when he broke it off. She seemed confused to see him. If she was still wounded, would she, God forbid, weep again?
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I’m swimming across the county.”
“Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”
“What’s the matter?”
“If you’ve come here for money,” she said, “I won’t give you another cent.”
“You could give me a drink.”
“I could, but I won’t. I’m not alone.”
“Well, I’m on my way.”
He dove in and swam the pool, but when he tried to haul himself up onto the curb, he found that the strength in his arms and his shoulders had gone, and he paddled to the ladder and climbed out. Looking over his shoulder, he saw, in the lighted bathhouse, a young man. Going out onto the dark lawn, he smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds—some stubborn autumnal fragrance on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead, he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry.
It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried—certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered. He could not understand the rudeness of the caterer’s barkeep, or the rudeness of a mistress who had once come to him on her knees and showered his trousers with tears. He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the water. What he needed then was a drink, some company, and some clean dry clothes, and while he could have cut directly across the road to his home, he went on, instead, to the Gilmartins’ pool. Here, for the first time in his life, he did not dive but went down the steps into the icy water and swam a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a child. He staggered with fatigue on his way to the Clydes’, and paddled the length of their pool, stopping again and again, with his hand on the curb, to rest. He climbed up the ladder and wondered if he had the strength to get home. He had done what he wanted—he had swum the county—but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague. Stooped, holding onto the gateposts for support, he turned up the driveway of his own house.
The place was dark. Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there, or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home?
He tried the garage doors, to see what cars were in, but the doors were locked and rust came off the handles. Going toward the house, he saw that the force of the thunderstorm had knocked one of the rain gutters loose. It hung down over the front door like an umbrella rib, but it could be fixed in the morning. The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up, until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.
Published in the print edition of the July 18, 1964, issue.
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