The Beard

I found it while culling old photos
that no one need keep — nor even see —
once I’m gone. It shows dark-haired me,
clear-eyed, smiling, hopeful, happy me.
At least I think it might be me,
despite that captured joy and smoothness.
The other reason I’m somewhat unsure of
the subject’s identity is because
the young fellow in these photos has
longish hair and a pretty nice beard.
A full beard, on a face shining with optimism,
even if it is out-of-focus.
I placed the photo in the bottom
of a shoebox in the closet with
the full-length mirror on the door.
The mirror that shows the image of
the silver-haired guy whose mouth sags
on the left side when he attempts to smile,
as if he’s afraid his face might slough off
the front of his head if he gave in
to full expressions of joy.
That’s the mirror where I stare into
the pair of burrows where nest the windows
of my soul. Deep within, it’s like I
can see inside the shoebox behind the door.
I still wonder what happened to that youngster,
but I at least know I can still find him.

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Our Mighty Mite

You came into this world without warning,
like a tornado at 7:00 in the morning,
surprising and arriving a month early,
turning your parents’ world swirly,
and sending us miles and miles south
to learn more about you than just word of mouth.
In the hospital we met and you surprised me
and I quickly surmised, see,
you’re one tough little mite
to show such grit in this fight.
Now you’re growing stronger every minute
showing everyone you’re in it to win it.
And even if you didn’t make it home Sunday,
I know you’ll get there by Monday…
Someway.

This bit of one-handed, sleep-deprived rhyme is the story of my new granddaughter, who was in a couldn’t-wait rush to come and make the world a sweeter place. I wrote it while holding her tiny body on my chest. If that isn’t inspirational, I should hand over my poet’s union card.

Widow’s Walk

“I see she’s still up there, Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth,” Enoch Steele said, jerking his thumb toward the tower that craned its neck above all other roof ridge lines that peered out at the entrance to Cloister Cove.

“Aye, been there every day for three years now, rain or shine, breeze of gale, waiting for the Cloisters Gardenia to turn-to ‘round the breakwater and deliver her Cap’n Matthew Rawlins back to her pining bosom,” the chandler’s clerk Martin Smoot replied while brushing a smudge of tobacco ash from Steel’s black wool coat.

“That ship’s as good as gone, wrecked on the Horn, scuttled by pirates off Java, its hull stove in by some rank bull off the Galapagos. We’d have heard something by now. A shank of driftwood, a bit of flotsam, a story passed from sailor to sailor, nothing. That woman waits for naught but a memory. G’day to you, Mr. Smoot,” Steele said as he grasped Smoot’s wrist, pushed it to the chandler’s chest and transferred the ash on the clerk’s fingers to his own apron.

As Steele walked to the wharves, Smoot ambled toward the peeling white house with the barred windows where Cap’n Matt’s lady stood on the widow’s walk, like one of Columbus’ crew in a crow’s nest, searching for any sign of Cathay on the horizon.

Though only moved to Cloister Cove three years before, Loretta Booth had become as much a part of the local scenery and color in town as that great old house, the bells in St. Augustine’s and the First Methodist Churches and the stench of whale blubber reeking from the harbor. Each had their places in the heartbeat of Cloister Cove, he thought. They were there, they were special, but no one paid much attention to that which made them so anymore. Each man, woman and child went about their business, neither looking up or down, nor wrinkling their nose at that which might make a manure-crusted farmer puke out his paunch.

A week later, while making a delivery of a fine German chronometer to the Masonic Hall, Smoot stopped in the middle of Captain’s Way, the town’s main thoroughfare, and decided to take stock of his senses and this little burg’s inventory of lives and property.

The onshore breeze still carried the gagging ghosts of sperm whales harvested from off the coast of Peru by men who could leave pregnant wives when they set sail and could return just as a child who knew them not celebrated its second birthday. He knew the inexorable lure of the sea for them, though.

“It’s best this business be so foul and dangerous, lest they just decide never to come home,” he muttered to himself.

The bells in St. Augustine’s chimed in four pairs of bong-bong, eight bells, just as the Methodist Church’s steeple pealed the requisite twelve times. Each was signaling noon, though that might confuse inlanders not steeped in the argot of the seaman.

Smoot smiled at how he and his fellow Cloisterites were a different breed even from other Connecticut Yankees. And above it all were the cries of the seagulls, a cacophony so constant that it was as easily ignored as the sound of waves lapping the shore or slapping the hulls of the vessels moored in the harbor.

As he walked toward the wharves and the chandler’s, Smoot looked up at the high roof of Captain Matthew Rawlins’ house, to assure himself that all was right in this little world within the greater world. That world then tilted on its axis. Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth was not manning her post on the widow’s walk.

Being a man of numbers, ledgers, balance sheets, Smoot saw this error in Cloister Cove’s books of life and couldn’t let it go without finding a good reason for this blatant discrepancy in his day-to-day.

He trotted up to the expansive front porch that sat like the lap on the old dowager that was Cap’n Mattie’s home away from his home on the seas. Smoot cupped his hands around his eyes to cut the glare and attempted to look inside for any sign of Miss Loretta Gardenia. But he saw no movement, not even the form of the captain’s West Indian cook, Sophie-Maude.

Now Smoot’s eccentricity was turning to a kind of fright, as if gravity would dissolve and all of Earth’s inhabitants would lose the tethers to their mother’s breast and be cast like seed into the void. He rapped urgently on the window light in the top of the heavy front door made of teak the Captain had salvaged from an English frigate that had not made it round the Horn in ’35. When he heard not a sound from within, Smoot pounded powerless on the seasoned planking that had resisted French shot at Trafalgar.

He shouted, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, are you there? It’s Martin Smoot from Bennett and Tinch. Are you well?”

When again he heard no reply, nor any sound, from within, Smoot ran to the back of the house where he found not only the barred windows extended, but the security-conscious Captain Mattie had installed a steel bulkhead door. He also found the firewood axe left in the cutting stump by Sophie-Maude.

Axe in hand, Smoot ran back to the front of the house and attempted chopping his was through the great front door, all the while screaming, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, get to your post or come to the door. We need you on that walk.”

As Smoot raised the axe for one more ineffective blow, a rough hand grabbed it, while another spun the chandler around and pushed him to the porch floor. Smoot looked up and saw a young man in a naval officer’s dark blue uniform jacket and white trousers, the axe held high and threatening as if leading a boarding party.

“What in blazes do you think you’re doing, sir?” the young officer shouted. “How dare you. I should box your ears, or better yet, take you down to my ships and have you bound to the mast for taste of my bosun’s cat.”

“Andrew stop!” came a woman’s voice from the street.

“Mother, please don’t hurry. I’ve got this madman under control. Look what he’s done to…”

“Matthew’s door! Why would…? Mister Smoot?”

“Oh, Miss Loretta Gardenia, I was so worried. You weren’t at your post looking for Captain Matthew and I thought the worst,” Smoot said.

“What could be worse, Mr. Smoot? That Matthew has not been heard from in all these years? That no sign of the Gardenia been found in any of the whaling grounds from Patagonia to the Sea of Japan?”

“Then…then why have you been up on the widow’s walk all these years for, madam?” Smoot said, more confused and addled than he had been when running around the house, axe in hand.

“Why, my son here, Andrew Booth. This young apprentice officer headed for the first class of the National Naval School in Annapolis. He’s been three years at sea.”

“But Cap’n Matthew…everyone thought you were…”

“Waiting for the Captain? No, Mr. Smoot. That ship, if you will pardon the expression, has indeed sailed. But no one ever thought to stop by and talk, to ask how I was, if I’d heard from Matthew,” Loretta Gardenia said.

“Well, we just figured…I just thought…”

“No, Mr. Smoot you did not think. You saw a woman pining for her son, not her missing paramour. Now, if you would kindly remove yourself from my front porch, my property. My solicitor will be contacting Mr. Bennett about what can’t be replaced — my door. Good day, Mister Smoot,” Loretta Gardenia said.

Her son, Midshipman Andrew Booth, hefted Martin Smoot as he might half-full seabag and set him on Captain’s Way toward Bennett and Tinch and an uncertain rest of that day and tomorrow.

As he walked toward the wharves, head down and trying to see where his figuring had gone wrong half an hour before, Smoot didn’t notice the wind had shifted from off the sea to from the hills surrounding Cloister Cove, blowing the perfume of pine and oak over the stench of the whale ships. He didn’t hear St. Augustine’s ring the bong-bong of two bells, 1:00 PM. He didn’t notice the change in the sound of the keening gulls that climbed and swooped all around him.

Loretta Gardenia handed the front door key to her son and said, “Come, Andrew, let’s go in for some tea. You can tell me more about school, your voyages and how you found Matthew in Alta California. I can’t believe he would scuttle the Gardenia in, where did you say?”

“Yerba Buena Bay, Mother. He and some of his crew hauled the hull ashore and, with a certain Señorita Veronica Valdez, turned it into a tavern and bordello, catering to and robbing the gold seekers headed to the Sierras. With no law to speak of out there, and his obvious lack of conscience, he had become a man of high regard in the darkest, lowest places.”

“Did you express your displeasure with his abandonment of your mother?”

“I did, mother, and when we parted, I can assure you he was weeping in contrition,” Andrew Booth said with a tight grin. “The day before our frigate set out again for the Baja, the Captain was not commanding the Gardenia. He was not to be found. Señorita Veronica’s brother told me the Captain must have decided to join the argonauts in seeking his fortune in the gold fields. A man could disappear in the Sierras in a heartbeat, Mother. I do not expect you — or anyone — will be hurt by his selfish, sinful ways again.”

“I see,” Loretta Gardenia said, composing herself for a moment. “My brave boy, I’m afraid all of today’s news and excitement has rendered me a bit tired. Would you mind if I retired to my room for a short rest? Sophie-Maude will be back from the market in Mystic within the hour and we shall have a lovely dinner celebrating your safe return.”

But Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth did not go to her room. She climbed the stairs to the roof of the house and mounted her widow’s walk. She looked out over the harbor, cocked her ear at the sound of the gulls, whose circling flights and weeping cries she stood observed from her lonely perch all these years. She above all could discern the change that had at least momentarily come over Cloister Cove and her life.

She knew the sound of seagulls crying. Now she wondered, were they laughing?

This is my fourth story based on one of the five prompts I was given for Weeks One of Story-a-Day September. Don’t know as I’ll make all five now, what with Week Two’s prompts in my mailbox, but I may make a run at it over the weekend. The prompt here was pretty much the last line of this piece. I guess I’ve written this story backwards, from the back end to front.

Return Receipt Requested

Maybe they’re like notes
I tied to doves I’ve tossed
to the air, hoping one’ll
light outside your window
and you’d see what I had to say.
Or perhaps I wrote these words
on blue-lined yellow paper,
folded them just so to slip
them under your door.
For sure I’ve penned
more than a thousand such
things, expressing doubts,
affection, hopes aborning
and dashed, telling lies
based in ironclad truth and
truths steeped in my wildest
imaginings, hung them
in this public square,
hoping perhaps you’d recognize
one as you passed and consider
turning it over to write back.

To Hold You

I sometimes wonder
what it would be like
to hold you close,
if you’d let me.
but I know that’s
an impossibility
at this point.
I’ll always wonder
about it though,
even if it’s as likely
as me touching the stars
lighting these lonely
dark nights as I always
hoped you would.
I wonder if you still
shine as you did
when this old man’s
dream began, this
silly dream about you
holding me and I
holding you. As I grow
older, I find myself
wondering more what
it would be like
if you’d give me
your stars to hold.

Written in response to my friend Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge to compose something around a line from Sara Teasdale: “Give me your stars to hold.”

Meanwhile, On July 4, 1776

In Philadelphia, the great men
with their great status and
aspirations debated
if these colonies should declare
themselves independent states
from their strict Mother, Britain.
Some decried the annoying nature
of their colleagues in the heat
of early summer. Their small war
was fought with ideas and rhetoric,
the ordnance of intellectuals.
It’s doubtful, in their deliberations,
they knew that 350 miles north
of their fight for independence,
men who had for the past year fought
against British, Loyalist and Iroquois
lead and steel, struggled, too,
at Fort Crown Point on Lake Champlain.
The good Doctor Bebe, charged
with their care, declared that day,
“Since I have been writing, one more
of our men has made his exit.
Death visits us almost every hour.”
In the next week, while the paper
declaring independence marched north
in triumph, the gentlemen officers
at Crown Point, without debate,
declared it time to abandon their dead
and marched their weary army south.
When these battle-baptized farmers,
shopkeepers and hunters, survivors
of a war not yet designated, met t
he document not yet titled, at their
new fort, not yet named, they renamed
this place on Rattlesnake Hill for why
they fought—Mount Independence.

 

Up in the Air

Her foot slipped and she started to fall.

Silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, I saw the figure of a girl drop to the pool from the high board.  She hit the water awkwardly with a terrific splash that made me wince.

I did not join the cluster of youngsters at poolside who laughed at her ugly spill.  In fact, I rose from my poolside lounge chair and took a step toward the pool to see if she was okay.  But then I sat back, not quite on the edge of my seat, but nervously nonetheless.  Even on such a hot July Fourth afternoon, I always shivered at the thought of climbing the fifteen rungs to the top of the high board.

The girl swam to the edge of the pool’s diving area and, with what looked like a move as natural as a dolphin’s, kicked up from the water, pulled on the deck edge and twisted into a seated position facing the water.  She sat there for a few seconds and then – not as smoothly as when she was waterborne – climbed to her feet and limped away from the pool directly toward me.  As she approached, I saw she was tall, fair, wearing a two-piece swimsuit and a red welt that spread from outside her right knee, up her torso to her shoulder.  I also noticed her eyes were staring vacantly right through me.

The girl – she was probably eighteen or nineteen – stopped at the lounge chair directly next to mine and reached down for her towel.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Startled, she looked up, straightened and wobbled a bit, her blue eyes wide and suddenly more focused.

“Oh, you scared me.  I didn’t see you sitting there,” she said.

“Sorry, I was just a bit concerned because you took such an awkward fall.”  I couldn’t help but stare at the ever more reddening stain against her skin.

“Eh, it happens,” she replied, shaking the water from her short strawberry blond hair.  At that, the woman teetered a bit and plopped down on her chair.

“Whoo, must’ve hit the water a little harder than I thought,” she grinned.

“Forgive me, but how the hell can you be so nonchalant about what just happened?” I said.  “That thing, that diving board, all high things, scare me to death.  And what just happened to you is one of the reasons they scare me.”

“Oh, I’ve been jumping off the high board since I was eight or nine.  Never really bothered me, but some little shit behind me jumped on his end of the board as was making my approach and my foot slipped.  Tell you what, though, that water stings like hell.”

“I’m sorry, I’m Bill, Bill Thompson,” I said, extending my sunblock-greased hand.

“Hi,” she replied, “I’m Paula.  The hand she extended was wet, sort of mushy, its fingers pruned from their time spent in the pool.

“Can I get you something?  For the dizziness, I mean.  A bottle of water maybe?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just sit here for a few minutes.  Besides, I think I may have just swallowed about a pint of water.  I know I have at least that much in my ears.”  Paula tipped her head down to the left and gently shook it, attempting to drain that ear.

“Ow,” she said and leaned back in the lounge chair.  “Well, that’s one of ‘em.  But I think I’ll wait a few more minutes for everything to stop rocking in front of me before I try the right ear.”

Then she giggled, the lilting laugh of a teenager, maybe even a ‘tween, I thought.  I was surprised by the sound of her laugh, something like human wind chimes, I thought.

“You’re sure you’re gonna be alright then?” I said.

“Oh sure, soon as I feel a little sturdier on my feet, I’ll climb right back up there.  I’ve got no other reason to be here at the park than that pool.”

“You’re not here to see the fireworks tonight?”

“No, I don’t like fireworks.  They make me real nervous.  That’s made for some lonely July Fourths, but I still have a good time flying off the board.  Instead of flying up and exploding, I fly down and splash.  I’m my own sort of firework, I guess.”

“I really admire you in being able to climb back up there,” I said.  “When I was about five my Dad took up me up with him to the top of a diving board just like this.  Then he chucked me off when I wouldn’t jump like he told me to.”

“How terrible,” Paula said, her eyes fully focused for the first time since she got out of the pool.

“Mom thought so, too.  But that’s how my Dad was, Mr. Throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end.  Sometimes it was for the better, said it would make a man out of me.  Other times…”

I shrugged.  “I still have a thing about heights.  You say that you have lonely July Fourths because of your thing with fireworks; I’m that way about skyscrapers, open elevators, airplanes.  That’s why the first spring break I ever went to was last year.  My junior year – that’s of college, Paula.  And I had to drive to Florida the whole way by myself.  Won’t fly.  Nope, can’t do it. Oh, I’ve tried to fight it, but I always get to the top and chicken out.”

“Well,” Paula said, “I can understand how you can be afraid of certain things.  With me and the fireworks, I guess it’s the noise.  I just can’t take the booming.  You should see me during thunderstorms.  I beat my dog to the spot under the bed every time.”

More chiming giggles.

“You’re very nice,” she said.  “Thanks.  Are you here by yourself, too?”

“Yeah, gonna try to work the tan, splash around, maybe meet some friends later for the fireworks show.”

“Oh, the boomers.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well let’s see, it’s sixish now, so you’ve got awhile before dusk.  That means I’ve got that long to get back to the pool before I head for home.”

“Paula,” I said, simultaneous with her blurting, “So, Bill.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“What if I could find a way for you not to be afraid of the noise?  Would you stay and watch the fireworks with me?”

Paula frowned for a second.  Then her faintly freckled face opened up into a grin.

“How are you going to manage that?” she said.

“Um, well, I have an idea.  C’mon, what do you say?”

Paula’s expression changed to something like that of a kid taking a test, leaning toward False, but nagged by the tiny possibility of True.  She looked down, right, left, right, like her mind was searching for an Exit sign.

“C’mon, the colors are so pretty in person. TV can’t do them justice.  Sometimes they actually make pictures against the sky.  They sparkle and then they sink down like somebody drew a picture in colored chalk on a blackboard and then threw some water on it.”

“And this is supposed to make me want to expose myself to explosions? Pretty pictures?”

“Well, maybe not, but keep an open mind, okay?”

“Ohh-kay. But you’ve got to do something for me first.”

I felt a chill on the windless pool deck, where the flags above the pool-house looked melted to their poles by the heat.

“Let me help you get up and off that board,” Paula said. I saw a determined look on her face, but heard a voice that was soft and inviting.

“Maybe you really should go home,” I replied.

Paula giggled again.

I began searching for words, as well as a means, of escape.

“Look,” Paula said, “I started diving when I was seven and ended up diving competitively in high school and now college. I even became a platform diver. Think about doing THAT for the first time. One thing I learned is we all have fears and we all have to start low and work our way up. I’ll have you going off that high board by sundown or my name’s not Paula McDonald.”

“Well, at least I’ve accomplished finding out your full name,” I grinned.

“Then it’s a deal,” Paula said, extending her hand as if to shake on it. I reached out and she pulled me up and off my seat. She led me to one of the low boards, the one on the far side of the pool away from the audience of lounge chairs and too-close observers. However, this low board sported a tail of pushing middle-schoolers and teens.

“So, Bill, here we go,” Paula said as we took the position at the end of the swiftly moving line. “This board is just four feet or so above the water. Here’s where we’ll get your feet, umm, dry…and then wet.”

“I’ve been off a board this high before, Paula, it’s just the tall one that scares me. There, I said it, it scares me.”

“You’re allowed to be scared of something, Bill. I had a coach that told me that there’s no disgrace in being knocked down – or landing on your back. If there’s any disgrace, it’s in not getting back up.”

“Thanks, Coach Lombardi.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”

“Okay, I’m glad you’ve gone off this board before. We’re going to make believe it’s the Big Kahuna this time, though. We’ll do everything here we need to do to get off the high board so you’ll be prepared for later. How’s that?”

“Sure,” I moaned.

“Right, now take your time, try to enjoy the experience,” Paula said. “Remember, for a second after you jump up from the board, you’ll be feeling nothing, just air. It’s this of feeling and hearing nothing that you’ll experience until you feel and hear your entry into the water. That’ll be your explosion, but instead of fireworks, it’ll be, um, well, waterworks. Then, underwater, it’s quiet again. It’s lovely.”

“Yeah, lovely.”

“Remember, Bill, this was sort of your idea, right? Do what I do. I’ll swim to the side and watch. Okay, we’re up in a couple more kids. What I want you to do is walk to the end of the board and feel it sink and bounce a bit. Go with it. Use the bounce to get your butt in the air, out and over the water. Wherever your center of gravity goes, you’re going, too. When you bounce up, jump forward and upwards, stretching your arms out in front of you. Oh, and you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to.”

Paula stepped up to the board and slowly strode to its end, her body matched the sink and rise of the board, just as easily as she was striding across the pool deck. On her last step, the board went down and rose. She coiled her body and then exploded up, out and down into the water, carving a languorous arc above the water to a near-splashless entry into the pool.

She swam to the near side of the pool and looked back at me, a smile of accomplishment, joy, support, something, on her face. I was holding onto the rails on each side of the board. Shoulders tucked tight to my ears, I marched to the end of the board, mistimed the bounce and flipped ass-over-teakettle, splat, onto the water’s surface. For a second, I considered not coming up from underwater, but I broke the surface and swam to the ladder at poolside, where Paula was waiting.

“I think this will take awhile,” she said. “But remember coach’s mantra.”

“Yeah, I tried staying down, but it didn’t work.”

She giggled that giggle again and said, “Let’s go, Bill. It’s still just six thirty.”

For the next hour and a half Paula and I worked on the side and jumped off the low board. After a few mechanically solid dives, she told me that I was ready to fly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“C’mon, Bill. What more do I have to do to get you up there?”

I had to admit, she had gone way beyond her part of the deal. While I stood in line about a half-hour before, I thought of a way for Paula to deal with the fireworks. I was as sure in my plan as she was in hers to help me fly. Except I was sure my plan would work. Her plan, I decided, was painfully flawed. I was the flawed part of the plan.

Stall, William.

“Okay, okay, but tell me one thing,” I said, digging my bare feet into the concrete pool deck as she pulled me toward the ladder to the high board. “Why are you so afraid of the loud sounds. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

She stopped, let go of my arm and stared at me. Hard. Then she took a step back.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Paula said and took another couple of steps toward her towel on the lounge chair.

“Paula,” I called after her. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to do this – IF – I just can’t do this without you. I promise I’ll get up there. Just don’t be upset with me. Please?”

Paula spun and coldly looked at me. “If you must know, I was in a traffic accident, okay? Late night. After a meet. Okay? Need to know more, Bill? How about this? It was icy. Tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the highway ahead of a line of traffic. My coach tried to stop, just like all the other cars. We spun, and then all the other cars started hitting one another, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG. Three teammates and the coach were killed, four others severely injured. Me, not a scratch. That enough to get you going, Bill?”

I felt a chill that was immediately melted by a blast of heated embarrassment from my chest to my forehead.

“God, Paula, I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her arm.

She twisted from my grasp.

“Look, I like you. You’re cute, you’ve got kind eyes, and you helped me when everyone else thought I was some kind of klutz. You didn’t know me – obviously. But you wanted to make sure I was okay. And I don’t think you were doing it just to hit on me. Not that I wouldn’t have let you, you little jerk. But right now I feel like I just wasted a day, in more ways than one, and if you don’t climb that damn ladder and jump off that freaking board, I’m out of here, deal or not.”

What could I do? I mean really? I turned around, walked to the bottom of the ladder, where there were only three divers still diving in the five minutes left before the pool was going to close.

I took one step up, felt the water dripping off the guy above me on the ladder. I looked over at Paula. She was wrapping herself in her towel and putting on her flip-flops.

More steps up. The guy in front of me had reached the top and was standing on the near end of the board while another diver bounced and flew out and down into the water. Paula was stuffing things into her tote bag. She hadn’t looked one time at me.

I pulled myself to the rear edge of the board and stood there, looking out at the whole pool deck, the roof of the pool house, and the orangey-blond top of Paula’s head, which was turned toward the women’s entrance to the locker-room.

The guy ahead of me bounced on the end of the board twice, sending it deeply below where I was standing, so all I could see was his body from the shoulders up. And then, when the board came back up, he would bounce maybe two feet above it and land back on the sandpaper-like end again. He was getting his timing right or just showing off, I guess.

Then he just took off. Beautiful. Yeah, I’ll say it. Like a bird.

And there I was, just as the lifeguard sounded his claxon horn and yelled into his bullhorn that the pool was closing.

“C’mon, pal, last dive,” he said to me.

I looked behind me and there was no one on the ladder. I could easily just climb down. Nobody would have to skinny to the side of the ladder or climb off to let me pass. It wouldn’t be like that time in high school. The last time I tried to dive off the high board. The laughs and remarks were about as big an embarrassment as any I ever felt. Until five minutes before I arrived at the top of the ladder.

I walked toward the end of the board and it really felt just like the low board. Only thing different was that the drop-off on either side was about three times as high. It looked like thirty times to me.

I looked over at Paula and she was about five steps from the locker room door. And then she turned around and looked at me. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me. And her face had a sadness about it. I took a breath, bounced once and lost my balance for a second, but recovered. My heart was beating so hard I knew everyone could hear it above the silence on the pool deck.

“Tonight, buddy, while we’re still young,” the lifeguard boomed. “Now or never.”

I chose never. I turned around and took a step toward the ladder. I saw Paula’s shoulders slump and she turned back to the locker room.

And then I slipped and fell.

She was right. There is this feeling of silence, of nothing, not even the wind. And then there’s the noise of hitting the water, followed by the quiet again. She was so right.

She was also right about it stinging like hell.

I came to the surface just as the lifeguard was climbing off his tower and trotting down to see if I was okay. I’m sure he would have a tough time explaining how the only person in the pool ended up drowned at closing time.

I put my head down and swam for the wall behind me, under the board. That’s when I saw Paula.

“Bill, are you all right?” she asked, her face showing what looked like genuine concern.

I walked right by her, grabbed the handle on the ladder and started climbing.

“Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go. Haven’t you suffered enough?”

The disgrace is in not getting back up, I heard in my head. Yeah, I’d suffered enough. I was determined to suffer no more –- no more disgrace, at least –- today.

“Bill, it’s okay,” I heard Paula say below me.

I got to the top and just jumped off, head-first. I didn’t hesitate and I’m sure I looked like a complete spazz, but I did it — on my terms — just to prove that I could.

But never again.

Later that night, on a blanket over the hood of my car, I looked at Paula’s face glowing red, then green, then yellow in the reflected glare of each aerial bomb. Mostly, though, her face just glowed.

“Bill,” she yelled above the sound of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasting in the headphones on her ears, “it really is very beautiful.”

I had to admit she was right, as I laid back and looked up, almost forgetting my near-failure. I couldn’t shake the idea of the sky as the water’s surface, splashing in a splatter of fire.

A big aerial bomb exploded in a garish flare of pyrotechnic elation. Even I was a little startled this time. It wasn’t the boom of the fireworks, though. It was the touch of Paula’s hand suddenly holding mine.

Yet another flash of colored light split the sky, the biggest yet, as before, it was followed by a second of silence, and then the boom reached me. It was the sound that hit me and it was the concussion of the explosion that washed over Paula. It startled her a bit and she squeezed my hand.

This shocked me. But just for a second.

Then I squeezed back.

So, I thought. Flying.

I found that first sentence somewhere and it intrigued me. The rest of the story just spread like the rings of ripples growing from someone hitting the water from sixteen feet above the surface.